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Pattern and Repertoire in History

Author(s):Roehner, Bertrand M.
Syme, Tony
Reviewer(s):Nye, John

Published by EH.NET (January 2004)

Bertrand M. Roehner and Tony Syme, Pattern and Repertoire in History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. xii + 413 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-00739-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Nye, Department of Economics, Washington University in St. Louis.

The book under review constitutes one of the most intriguing, challenging, and at the same time, frustrating works I’ve come across in the last few years. The authors make their focus the creation of a “nearly” scientific approach to comparative historical sociology using examples drawn from the literature on the origin of revolutions and strikes, war and territorial aggression, and the problem of wartime logistics. But in another sense, the authors are interested in a deeper question which should be of special interest to the readers of EH.NET: How does one study history from a social scientific perspective?

They want to know: What constitutes relevant and irrelevant historical information? What does it mean to observe recurrent patterns in similar historical events? How do we “test” or verify our beliefs and claims? Economic historians have been especially concerned with these problems and have developed a variety of partial answers and a number of workable methodologies over the last few decades without coming up with a systematic or definitive answer to the problem.

After reviewing the various methodologies in common use in historical sociology, the authors make mostly common-sense decisions about the best way to proceed. They try to break up historical events into smaller, “component” parts. They compare and contrast these parts across similar historical episodes, and they analyze these parts and their interrelation using a mix of qualitative and quantitative description. They seem to be indifferent to formal statistical hypothesis testing, though I do not entirely understand why. Surely Cliometrics — for all its limitations — explicitly deals with many issues of importance to such sociological discussions. More inexplicably, they criticize the use of individual choice methodology as typically applied in economics and economic history, because individual choice theory ignores “group representation and collective consciousness” (p. 21). Yet when using what they consider a “compelling argument” against individual choice theory, they point to a criticism of Jack Goldstone against Gordon Tullock’s positing of the standard collective action problem. As we know, the standard problem of collective action makes it unprofitable for individuals to participate in a revolutionary movement if free-riding were possible. Goldstone makes the point that ‘”individuals do not decide to join, or not join, revolutionary movements as isolated individuals.” Instead, they decide “as part of groups to which they have prior commitments” (Goldstone 1999). “This leads us to analyze the role of social constraints” (Roehner and Syme, p. 21).

Yet this only seems to be an argument for expanding the set of considerations that affect the payoffs to individual actors without changing the desirability or viability of the individual choice methodology as the appropriate tool of analysis. Perhaps a “collective consciousness” technique (which I understand is neither universally agreed upon, well-established, nor battle-tested even in sociological circles) would do better than individual choice reasoning with modified collective constraints, but it seems a bit premature to simply assert the inadequacy of the individual choice methodology on the basis of this simple critique. More important, I see little in their actual historical cases and analysis which is not amenable to individual choice reasoning. Indeed, they use individual actor models throughout most of the book, albeit substituting the state as the individual actor. But this is a tradition that is no more controversial (albeit incompletely specified) in political economy than is the habit of treating firms as single individuals in the literature on industrial organization. These usages are certainly well-known to the authors — one of whom holds a position as a lecturer in economic history! Hence, this methodological discussion, no matter how interesting, seems less than essential for the success or failure of the bulk of the book.

Be that as it may, there is much pleasure and learning to be derived from a careful study of the substantive chapters. Their chapter on “General Strikes, Mushroom Strikes” contains much insight in the nature and timing of strikes and shows how a comparative perspective builds on the more narrowly constructed national studies of strike duration, which allow us to observe, for example, that strikes are more frequent in the Spring and Summer, and less frequent in the Autumn or Winter. An economist might point out that this would be a good example of individual choice in action since it is both more pleasant to be outside in the warmer months, and the opportunity cost of striking or, even worse, of losing employment (due to a failed strike) in winter months is greater than in the summer. The authors themselves look to problems of partial unemployment and seasonal disparities in work opportunities or demand for output (cf. coal in winter) as important explanations. This sort of reasoning — at the margin — is precisely what neoclassical microeconomic theory is all about. Economics reasoning is not to be applied to the average. It does not explain nor seek to explain why some people strike no matter the individual cost to themselves. Rather, economists argue that at the margin, the more costly it is to engage in an activity, the less it will be undertaken particularly when dealing with aggregates of separate actions. This is a common problem that pops up with some regularity in social science critiques of economics. Economics is said to be deficient in explaining why anyone bothers to vote in a large election, or participate in a large-scale strike, but it makes no such claims in the first place. And it is foolish to deny the usefulness of marginal reasoning either in economic history, or for that matter, for scientific analysis in general. Given their otherwise commonsensical approach to modifying scientific methodology to the study of sociology, the authors — and we — would have benefited from their explicit incorporation of economic reasoning in their work or with explicit confrontation on a case by case basis where such reasoning fails.

Much of the book is taken up with the analysis of warfare — both in the general subjects of “Warfare for Territorial Expansion” and “The Constraints of Logistics.” There is too much to go over here in a short review, as their discussions range from the Napoleonic Wars through the First and Second World Wars. Much of their discussion seems to match standard military history such as the fact that submarine warfare in the Atlantic had striking parallels in both the First and Second World Wars — suggesting that the internal logic of submarine warfare tended to dominate over ephemeral considerations. Yet these discussions only highlight the difficulty of pinning down the authors’ hypotheses. They ask “Would it be the same again in a future conflict even though nuclear propulsion has considerably altered the problem? We are convinced that the response to this question must be sought not in an evaluation of the technology of submersibles, but in a comparison of the economic and naval potential of the belligerents” (p. 263). (And surely it makes no sense to posit the economic and naval potential against technology, since the naval potential of the belligerents is surely determined in part by the technology of the instruments of naval warfare.) After a few rereadings of the subsequent analyses, I can only conclude that the authors answer with a resounding “Maybe.”

The authors, in my view both lose the opportunity to explore the interaction between technological characteristics and military capacity as well as the deeper question of which random events were genuinely significant for the war, and which events were driven by the logic of economic, military and political considerations For instance, in the chapter on logistics, one would have liked to have seen a discussion of the role of contingency in the Second World War, where surely the success of the attack on France had much more to do with risk-taking, Allied error, and sheer luck than the conduct of the War in the East after, say Stalingrad, when individual battles ceased to matter, and sheer numbers virtually guaranteed German defeat. The issues they do tackle are stimulating but whether I agreed with them or not, it was not always clear what “test” or comparison we should look to when deciding whether a particular set of comparisons was insightful or accurate.

So this is certainly an imperfect book, but in its verve and ambition, one which nonetheless should be commended to the attention of EH.Net readers.

John V. C. Nye specializes in French economic history and industrial organization. His publications include “Tax Britannica: Nineteenth Century Tariffs and British National Income,” (forthcoming in Public Choice, 2004). He is a founding member of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics (ISNIE).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Coping with Crisis: International Financial Institutions in the Interwar Period

Author(s):Kasuya, Makoto
Reviewer(s):Mitchener, Kris James

Published by EH.NET (December 2003)

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Makoto Kasuya, editor, Coping with Crisis: International Financial Institutions in the Interwar Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xv + 235 pp. $64.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-925931-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kris James Mitchener, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

The interwar period offers an excellent laboratory for analyzing the effects of financial institutions on economies. Regulatory practices and institutional arrangements varied across countries at a time when banking crises were widespread and severe, and when responses by policymakers to the turmoil differed. Hence, a new book aimed at examining these crises from an institutional perspective has the potential to shed considerable light on the evolution of these differences as well as their lasting effects. Although the new volume edited by Makoto Kasuya moves us in the right direction, its selective coverage of the interwar period leaves the reader wishing for a more comprehensive treatment of the topic. There are some fine pieces of business history scholarship contained within its pages, but in terms of answering larger questions of a comparative nature, the ad hoc collection of articles in this edited volume limits its potential contribution.

It is not too difficult to root out the source of the problem — it is a conference volume. The chapters consist of papers presented at the twenty-sixth International Conference on Business History held at Mt. Fuji in September 2000. If one were apt to view current policy through the lens of history, then organizing a conference on interwar institutions and financial crises in Japan seems quite appropriate, given Japan’s financial crisis in the second half of the 1990s. The problem comes in translating the conference proceedings to a book about the institutional response to financial crises in the interwar period (as the title and author’s introduction suggest). The ten chapters focus on only five countries: Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and Japan. After an introductory chapter by the editor, the remaining chapters are divided into three broad categories: commercial banking (four chapters), universal banking (two chapters), and insurance and securities (three chapters). As might be expected, given the location of the conference, Japan receives a more thorough treatment (three chapters are devoted to its institutions); France, Japan, and Britain receive only a single chapter devoted exclusively to their institutions. One chapter per country might have been sufficient if all the papers followed a similar design and examined institutions in a like manner or alternatively surveyed banks, insurance, and securities in a parallel fashion. But the topics the chapters cover are quite distinct, ranging from the history of Merrill Lynch and its impact on middle-class investors in the United States after the Depression (Chapter 10 by Edwin Perkins) to the internal policy decisions of Mitsui Bank during the interwar period (Chapter 5 by Shinji Ogura). Because similar analysis is not provided for the five countries (some are written as business history articles while others have more of an economic history flavor), the scope for making comparisons across countries is not fully realized.

The introductory chapter by Kasuya provides a nice overview of the institutional makeup of each of the countries studied, and then attempts to draw out the linkages in the chapters by emphasizing the role that the Great Depression played in transforming institutions, industry structure, and regulation. He argues that financial regulations were tightened in all countries in the interwar period, especially around the time of the Great Depression. In fact, some countries had changed their regulations prior to World War I, while others weathered the storm quite well and saw little need to tighten regulation even after the Depression. Countries such as Australia and Canada came into the interwar period with banking systems that were better equipped to deal with large macroeconomic shocks. (Canada had developed an extensive system of branch banks and had implemented restrictions on real estate lending, while Australia, in response to the 1890s Depression, had weeded out weaker banks, raised capital standards, and also placed limits on its commercial banks’ ability to make loans against real estate.) Including counter-examples such as these would have further distinguished the comparative approach of the book. Kasuya’s introduction also emphasizes that the Depression induced regulatory change in many countries, but it is rather silent on why the response varied across countries. For the most part, it attributes regulatory change to public concern over the crises. However, it is quite likely that other factors such as interest group pressure and the private motives of regulators shaped regulatory outcomes during the interwar period. To cite one well-known example, the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in United States was as much the product of industry lobbying by unit bankers (who, despite their depleted membership ranks, were able to convince Congress that deposit insurance was preferable to interstate branch banking) as it was a response to public concern over banking instability. The book thus misses an opportunity to highlight other factors, besides public response to crises, that may help explain the evolution of differing financial institutions during the interwar period.

Nevertheless, some comparisons across countries can at least be made with respect to commercial banks. Using a sample of the career paths of senior executives of the 27 largest banks in France, England, and Germany, in chapter 2, Youssef Cassis examines the extent to which each of these countries had begun to put into place professional management structures and how the Depression shaped these efforts. The next chapter by Michael Collins and Mae Baker argues that British firms for the most part did not engage in long-term lending to industrial enterprises, even in spite of political and economic pressure to change their traditional lending practices. According to Ogura’s discussion in Chapter 5, commercial banks, including Mitsui Bank, also followed short-term lending policies (in part by expanding into the securities business) until the war with China led the government to put pressure on banks to provide more long-term loans to fund munitions companies. In a piece that is more economic than business history, Eugene White provides an interesting look at the origins of maturity mismatch, which he argues emerged as the result of New Deal policies that favored longer-term loans, a shift from pre-Depression practices of banks.

The remaining chapters consider universal banks and non-bank financial institutions, and the sparse coverage of countries makes comparisons more difficult. The chapter by Eric Bussiere is a well-developed case study on how Paribas became a universal bank (as practiced in Belgium) after World War I, but then moved away from this strategy to ensure its survival during the Depression. Harald Wixforth, on the other hand, looks more generally at large German banks in Chapter 7 and argues that they were in a weakened position prior to the Depression because of factors such as inflation, declining capital-to-asset ratios, and competition. Two of the chapters from the last section examine life insurance and securities markets in Japan (by Mariko Tassuki and Makoto Kasuya, respectively), and discuss how government regulation helped the former but mobilization for war hindered the growth of the latter.

Ultimately, what the book lacks is a way to bundle the articles into a balanced package that would appeal to economists and economic historians as well as business historians. The most obvious way to do this would have been to integrate the institutional analysis more fully with the macroeconomic history of the period, paying particular attention to the effects of the agricultural overhang and financing burden associated with World War I, the growth of new industries and the construction boom of the 1920s, and the Great Depression. From a broad perspective, understanding the evolution of financial enterprises during the interwar period is interesting because of the special relationship these firms have with the broader economy. Using macroeconomics to frame the institutional analysis might have meant that several interesting and important aspects of interwar finance and institutional innovation that ended up receiving short shrift in this volume could have also been included. Two in particular stand out. First, there is little comparative analysis related to the rise of consumer installment financing or hire purchase (in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain) — one of the most revolutionary aspects of finance during the 1920s and 1930s and one that has been linked to the severity of the Depression in the U.S. by economic historians such as Martha Olney. Second, and again in a comparative sense, the book does not illuminate which institutions or institutional innovations were crucial for financing the post-World War I investment boom that manifested itself in residential construction in the United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and other parts of Europe and in the growth of new technology sectors such as automobiles, radios, and other consumer durables. A comparative discussion of these issues would have been well received by scholars of the interwar period.

Kris James Mitchener is assistant professor of economics and Dean Witter Foundation Fellow in the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, as well as a Faculty Research Fellow with the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is currently researching sovereign debt crises during the classical gold standard period and the effects of supervision and regulation on financial stability in the U.S. during the interwar period. His most recent publications are “The Great Depression as a Credit Boom Gone Wrong” (with Barry Eichengreen), Research in Economic History (forthcoming) and “The Productivity of U.S. States Since 1880.” Journal of Economic Growth (2003).

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810

Author(s):Carrington, Selwyn H. H.
Reviewer(s):Richardson, David

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Selwyn H. H. Carrington, The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002. xxii + 362 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8130-2557-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Richardson, Department of History, University of Hull.

As we approach the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of its slave trade in 1807, debate over the origins of this remarkable event remains as lively as ever. At the heart of this debate lies the issue of the relative importance of economic and non-economic factors in determining abolition. For over a century after Parliament ended British slave trafficking, abolition was primarily portrayed as a victory of religiously inspired humanitarianism, but this consensus was broken when from the 1920s Caribbean-orientated historians claimed that though humanitarianism could not be ignored economic factors were paramount in dictating Britain’s ending of slave carrying from Africa in 1807. Central to this argument was the claim that the British slave-based planter class in the West Indies was in decline from the 1770s onwards and ultimately fell victim to an emergent British industrial capitalism that identified intellectually and politically with principles of free labor and free trade. This argument has been the subject of severe criticism, not least by Seymour Drescher (Econocide, 1977; The Mighty Experiment, 2002), but as shown by this latest book from Selwyn Carrington, a West Indian-born, Howard-based historian, it is still capable of attracting vigorous support. It remains to be seen whether Carrington’s new book proves to be the “classic study” in the decline thesis tradition that his fellow West Indian-born historian, Colin Palmer, predicts in his forward to the book (p. xvii).

In common with earlier exponents of the decline thesis, Carrington argues that the American Revolution was critical in simultaneously undermining the economic viability of British West Indian sugar production and the mercantilist philosophy which had given rise to sugar preferences and slavery. Fatally wounded by the loss of cheap North American provisions and of a mainland market for its rum after 1775, British West Indian slavery, according to Carrington, had run its course by the end of the eighteenth century, squeezed between rising costs of producing and marketing sugar, on the one hand, and inadequate demand for sugar in war-torn Europe, on the other. Carrington notes that West Indian planters actively sought to resolve their economic problems, anxiously trying to retain preferences in sugar markets, adopting, inter alia, new — and higher yielding — strains of sugar cane in the 1790s, and resorting to hired slave labor to ease their cash flow. But, he argues, all proved in vain, as planter profit margins on sugar production were steadily eroded after 1776 and ultimately almost totally eradicated in 1804-7 by sluggish wartime markets for sugar and inexorable increases in costs. Moreover, throughout the period 1783-1807, the British authorities did little to ease the plight of planters. For Carrington, therefore, an impoverishment of the British West Indian planter class that began with the American Revolution and was subsequently compounded by a growing over-production crisis in sugar provides the key to explaining Parliament’s decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807.

Carrington’s book is an elaborate endorsement of an argument, the essentials of which were first advanced some sixty years ago by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944). In doing so, it draws on a much greater evidential base than Williams did. Crucial to Carrington’s contribution to the decline thesis is his research on British colonial office papers as well as on the private papers of British planters, many of them absentees whose records are now lodged in archives scattered throughout Britain. Carrington is not the first scholar to draw on plantation papers, but the evidence he gleans from them is especially important to his story. They provide a wealth of data on the costs of sugar production as well as on the transport and sale of sugar and the profitability of plantation production, thereby ensuring that his study offers one of the most important sources of information we have on the financial workings of the West Indian economy between 1776 and 1807. Whether, however, the evidence that planters’ accounts offer provides convincing support for his general thesis that the British West Indies were in terminal decline after 1776 is more problematical. Some planters evidently felt under pressure during the decades before 1807, but, in the absence of planters’ comments in earlier periods, there is no reason to think their concerns after 1783 were exceptional. Moreover, providing a detailed catalogue of complaints about the economics of sugar production from absentee planters or even showing that profit margins on certain plantations were falling is far from conclusive evidence that the British West Indies as a whole were in economic decline before 1807, even less that such decline, if that was what it was, ultimately dictated British abolition of the slave trade. Indeed, evidence gleaned by other scholars such as John Ward (British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834, 1988) from plantation records similar to those used by Carrington shows that rates of return from British West Indian sugar planting just before 1807 were more or less identical to those achieved in the so-called “silver age” of sugar before the American Revolution. Furthermore, if Carrington’s case is difficult to reconcile with long-term trends in profitability, it is equally difficult to square with a post-1783 macro-picture that exhibits rising levels of sugar output and sales and buoyancy in slave markets through to 1807, prompted in part, but not exclusively, by expanding boundaries of the British West Indies after 1792, a point that Carrington almost totally ignores. In fairness to Carrington, he does offer some relevant macro-data, but what he presents relates to the older British islands and excludes output from Trinidad and British Guiana, and often neglects some well-known published sources of data. In short, he provides an inadequately delineated macro framework within which to locate and assess the reliability or partiality of findings based on a perusal of plantation records. Such methodological deficiencies in Carrington’s argument may be overlooked by those long convinced of the merits of economic explanations of Britain’s ending of its slave trade. They will, however, probably reinforce the skepticism of the decline theory’s critics, who will see in Carrington’s book evidence of a disjuncture between planter complaints and West Indian expansion after 1783, and will further encourage them to look beyond the economics of slavery itself in their continuing search for explanations of the abolitionists’ victory in 1807.

David Richardson is Professor of Economic History at the University of Hull in the UK and co-author of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: a Database on CD-Rom (CUP, 1999). He has published numerous articles relating to the Atlantic slave trade and is currently doing research (with David Eltis (Emory) and Frank Lewis (Queen’s, Ontario)) on trends in slave prices and productivity in the British West Indies, 1673-1807.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century

Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance

Author(s):Warman, Arturo
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Arturo Warman. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance. (Translated by Nancy L. Westrate). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003 (originally published in Spanish in 1988). xiii + 270 pp. $49.95 (cloth,) ISBN 0-8078-2766-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-5437-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The distinguished Mexican anthropologist, Arturo Warman, published the Spanish language edition of this sweeping survey of the place of corn in world history since the sixteenth century in 1988. The colorful subtitle refers to corn’s disputed parentage and the fact that through history the crop has stayed outside “the system of accepted norms” (p. xiii). As a Mexican social scientist Warman became deeply interested in the social and economic significance of corn and planned a history of the crop’s place in Mexican life. Various scholarly projects prepared him for that work but he ultimately deferred it in favor of the current volume.

Several preliminary chapters lay a foundation for the book. Warman begins by describing the many useful American plants that have had major “repercussions” in “the development of the world economy, and the world market place.” At the heart of corn’s story, he writes, “lies the history of capitalism” (p. 11). The corn plant (Zea mays), Warman explains, has various amazing characteristics. Evolved from the grass teosinte, it does not propagate itself in nature, is self-pollenizing, is remarkably responsive to hybridization, is adaptable to a wide range of environments, has outstripped other food plants in its yields, is accommodative to complementary crops, is easily converted to edible form, and is capable of conversion into a myriad of derivative products ranging from bourbon to adhesives and automotive fuel, as well as providing livestock feed that enters the human diet as animal protein. Debate has raged as to whether the birthplace of corn was the Americas or Asia. Sketching the archeological evidence, Warman accepts Mexico as the place of origin.

Warman devotes most of the remainder of the book to tracing the history of corn in major areas of the world, dealing first with Asiatic locales. First introduced there in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese, corn became a crop of the mountains and frontier regions and particularly a food of the poor. He links its history to the complex land tenures and labor intensive systems of cropping in that great region and the relation of this crop to other major crops including a number of other western immigrants. Corn, he explains, was an important part of the second great agricultural revolution that occurred in China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He follows with an account of the place of corn in the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves endured their passage to the new world on a diet consisting almost solely of corn meal paste, the grain’s high vitamin content warding off scurvy. Introduced primarily by the Portuguese, corn became a major crop in the African slave shipping areas and their hinterlands to meet the provisioning needs of the slavers. The crop adapted well to slash and burn agriculture. By the seventeenth century, corn was well established on the Atlantic coast of Africa and probably in much of the interior. With the decline of the slave trade in Africa, European nations developed colonial relations with its peoples. Corn now became increasingly important as a subsistence crop grown by peasants. Colonial administrators and white settlers emerged as a ruling class in the colonial dependencies and a native worker class emerged to provide labor for extractive ventures and settler agriculture. Corn products also sustained this labor sector but corn’s resistance to disease, short growth cycle, versatility, low requirements of capital and labor, and high yields also commended it to white farmers. Colonial land policies, Warman explains, benefited white interests and confined native populations in restricted areas, thus limiting native livestock operations. Hampered by natural hazards and colonial policies, peasants used corn both as sustenance and to provide agricultural surplus. Corn became, Warman concludes “one of the secret weapons in peasant resistance to colonial rule” (p. 81). In the era of national independence that followed the colonial era in Africa growth in the volume of commercial export crops — coffee, tobacco, cacao, and cotton — far outstripped growth in domestic food crops; a condition of dietary dependence prevailed. Corn flour was one of the cheapest foods per thousand calories available in urban African markets. The hope for future growth in food production in Tropical Africa lies, Warman suggests, in land reform.

Turning to Europe, Warman reviews the treatment of corn in European publications from the sixteenth century to the modern era. First grown as a curiosity in Andalusia and later as an agricultural crop, by the eighteenth century it had displaced long established cereals both in irrigated areas and in the subsistence peasant economy of northern Spain. By the end of that century corn was planted from the Black Sea to Gibraltar and, it was said, south of a line from the mouth of the Garonne to the Rhine above Strasbourg. It was often planted on land that formerly had been fallowed. Ripening at a time that had typically been one of food scarcity, it reduced the threat of famine and became the food of those who lived in “poverty, rural deprivation, and primitive … conditions.” Corn contributed vitally to the ongoing, “intellectual, political, industrial, and agricultural revolutions” then underway (p. 111). Finding no “ubiquitous and precise cultural agent” that accounted for the diffusion of corn growing through much of early Modern Europe, Warman identifies four “natural and social factors”: “growing conditions and the agricultural systems or their associated methods: population dynamics; trade, prices, and markets; and landownership and the relations of domination existing between landowners and direct producers” (p. 112). Their interaction, sometimes affected by more subtle influences, made corn “the bread of southern Europe’s poor.” But it also “generated wealth for landowners, shopkeepers and money lenders, overlords, and the new middle class,” who, ironically, ate wheat bread (p. 131). This occurred as an agricultural revolution took place between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries involving more intensive cultivation of the land and dwindling use of fallow.

Two American agricultural exports had tragic consequences — the potato famines of the mid nineteenth century and the widespread incidence of pellagra in southern Europe and later in the southern United States. Those highly dependent on corn as a food might develop pellagra and this chronic disease, causing dermatitis, diarrhea, and ultimately dementia, battered the population of European corn growing regions during the nineteenth century. Warman describes the various efforts to explain the disease and the developing conviction that diets heavily dependent on corn were responsible. Such dependence was usually associated with poverty and such onerous rents that peasants could not eat a balanced diet. Pellagra was “a symptom of a process of fierce modernization in peripheral areas” (p. 150).

In telling the story of corn in the United States, Warman stresses the importance of Native American tutelage. “Once the settlers had fully grasped the secrets and potential of corn, they no longer needed the Native Americans. Indigenous peoples were wiped out, scattered or relocated as settlers penetrated even further inland” (p. 155). Warman’s discussion of American economic development sketches many of the familiar facts of that story. Corn was a basic crop in the long continuing American frontier experience but played “its most important and long-lasting role,” he writes, ” in the predominantly rural world of the American South” (p. 159). It was a staple of slave diets but these were apparently sufficiently varied that the slaves did not suffer from nutrition deficiency diseases. Corn cultivation was far more extensive than cotton in the South but the latter produced the wealth and contributed most to the development of class differences. Sharecroppers became so hard pressed that pellagra was endemic by the early twentieth century. U.S. Public Health Service researchers discovered that a diet rich in milk, meat, and beans countered the disease. In the 1930s the University of Wisconsin’s Conrad A. Elvehjem showed that nicotinic acid deficiency was the specific cause. The human digestive process failed to unlock corn’s content of this vitamin when it was prepared as food in certain ways. Warman here comments that “pellagra was a disease born of development, a product of a type of progress that was imposed, unjust, and unequal”(p. 173).

Prior to the nineteenth century corn’s history was “tied directly to human nutrition.” In the expanding, industrializing, railroad-building United States, however it also became “the raw material for the production of meat and dairy products” and in the first half of twentieth century the U.S. crop accounted for half of the world’s production. It was the “very backbone” of American agriculture (pp. 181, 183). During that era U.S. corn production was more or less stable. The successful development of hybrids, however, along with improvements in mechanization, and fertilizer and herbicide use resulted in unprecedented yields of the crop after World War II. Now American corn became a significant factor in the world trade in cereals. By the beginning of the twentieth century U.S. pioneer subsistence agriculture had been replaced by commercial farming but farmers still continued “to supply the largest part of the means of production”– “labor, motive power, seeds, organic fertilizers.” Now the farmer became increasingly dependent on the market for these things. A massive institutional framework developed to sustain and direct agriculture and agribusiness became the “dominant force” in American agriculture (pp. 186, 188). In 1954 the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 was designed “to use U.S. agricultural surpluses abroad in the effort to eradicate world hunger” (p. 190). Related programs followed and corn was a major element in the U.S. contribution. Because “corn entered the world market … as a food stuff for the poor and as forage for the rich it surmounted the inelasticity of demand typically associated with cereals” (p. 192).

In a final substantive chapter Warman describes the world market for food as it developed between the 1950s and the mid 1980s. Prior to World War II, Western Europe was the only major agricultural region that did not meet its own needs and also provide some export grains. By the 1960s only the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada were independent producers. U.S. aid programs exacerbated this trend and “food dependence became a chronic and widespread phenomenon in many Third World countries” as did population explosions (p. 203). Wheat dominated in U.S. exports until the 1970s and then corn became increasingly important. American aid had generated “an entirely new market, whether by introducing the consumption of wheat or by displacing existing domestic production” (p. 205). The U.S., charges Warman, distributed aid with a view to its strategic political impact. The political considerations of the United States and its allies dictated the magnitudes of supply and demand, prices and the conditions of sale, that defined the world cereal market and interacted with domestic tariffs, subsidies, and other production controls (p. 209). By the 1970s five great multinational grain handling companies dominated world trade in cereals. After a food production crisis in Russia and a failure of the hybrid corn crop in the U.S. during the early 1970s, however, food production outpaced population growth. Although “corn’s incredible growth as a commodity for reexport was the most outstanding phenomenon.” most third world countries had entered a condition of dietary dependence (p. 212). Despite adequate world supplies of food at the time of writing, Warman identifies a major problem of distribution and future vulnerability to shortages.

In two concluding chapters Warman discusses the recent phenomenal expansion of food production in which corn has been an important part and the possible ways in which growth in food production may be sustained. He sees two available agricultural modes — “capitalized intensive agriculture, also known as scientific agriculture or production by the wealthy.” The other is traditional peasant agriculture, utilizing few resources beyond those readily available and controlled by the production unit. This is farming by the poor” (p. 218). The first of these, he argues, has not improved world diets in the past nor solved the problem of distribution. Advocates of the Green Revolution tried to increase production in peasant agriculture by the use of hybrid crop varieties but had very limited success because of the high costs involved. Warman identifies less expensive ways of increasing peasant production — reduction of fallowing, bringing marginal lands into production and land reform. “The only way to confront the problem of world hunger,” he argues, “is to increase peasant production, using the many and at times unimaginable means to achieve that goal” (p. 231).

In the final chapter “New Reflections on Utopia and the New Millennium,” Warman explains that he has attempted “to analyze some social processes in which corn has played an important role” (p. 232). From one perspective his book is a sweeping historical survey of the adoption of corn as a major food and feed crop in much of the world. In this respect it is a fascinating compendium of thought-provoking facts and illustrative statistics. The volume is also a somewhat sour Marxist critique of modernization and, one may argue, a defense of peasant agriculture. A few passages illustrate Warman’s perspective. Concluding his discussion of the Chinese case, he writes “Growing rural surpluses did not remain in the rural countryside or even in China itself. … They were transferred to foreign powers’ spheres of economic influence and accumulated there. Peasants were the source of agricultural know-how and labor, yet they were increasingly threatened … settling marginal lands on the nation’s domestic frontier. For many decades they accepted the destiny of peasants everywhere, unable to eat what they produced because it was prohibitively expensive. Thus they transformed corn and other American plants, previously foods for the poor, into essential resources for their very survival. They did even more, they carried out a [social] revolution” (p. 50). He summarizes the slave trade this way: “the slave trade was not destiny or fate, but a series of opportunities and limitations.” Those “opposed to slavery … were social groups with the emerging power and will to confront that circumstance. The slave trade was an aberration, but neither was it the result of a general law of historical development. Rather, it was history; something that happened, but that just as easily could not have taken place at all” (p. 65). In considering the European agricultural revolution of 1600 to 1800, Warman rejects the common assumption that it was “the result of the application of scientific knowledge to production, diffused by elites and intellectual vanguards,” preferring instead “the idea of revolution as a result of collective knowledge and collective action” (p. 119). Leaving discussion of pellagra, he argues, “Change was promoted in the periphery from above and from abroad in order to recreate society in accordance with an ideological model; the industrial millennium that sought to establish a homogenous world. … Pellagra was not simply a disease of poverty and deficiencies, but one of the many diseases of modernization, of development, of prodevelopment capitalism” (p. 150). And finally, the history of U.S. agriculture is a process of accumulation with very different and increasingly accelerated rhythms. It is also a history of inequality, of exclusion, and of subjugation. Each process created its own marginal groups” — Native Americans, rural poor, urban poor, migratory workers, food stampers (p. 193). “Marginalization threatens the American farmer, the most outstanding product of the U.S. democratic ideal” (p. 194). He contrasts these developments with the diversity, stability, community reinforcement, and population controls found in peasant societies.

Although the principle of comparative advantage was at work in the spread of corn, it was conditioned by relations of power and dominance, argues Warman; accumulated wealth put less powerful groups at severe disadvantage. He was apparently unaware of ongoing cliometric research on the profits of imperial enterprise. He does not offer a rigid formula of class differentiation; to him the process was one of diverse conditions and forces but invariably involved exploitation. In considering the sections dealing with corn’s history in the United States, Americanists will consider some of his judgments to be overstated. The achievements of American plant scientists are brushed aside in a sentence, and the mechanics of diffusion are described in terms more general than modern scholarship has achieved. Warman emphasizes the need for increasing the effectiveness of peasant agriculture’s national or regional dietary independence but he gives much less attention to the issue of population control. Warman’s translator has produced a lucid, stimulating, and informative narrative but the reviewer remains happy that he is not one of Warman’s peasants nor sentenced to relive the existence that he, himself, experienced as a farm boy, living the democratic ideal.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and has published widely in American agricultural and political history. His most recent book is The Farm on the North Talbot Road (University of Nebraska Press). His next article, “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” will appear in the forthcoming summer number of Agricultural History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850

Author(s):Bozhong, Li
Reviewer(s):Pomeranz, Kenneth

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Li Bozhong, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, and

Li Bozhong, Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-Industrialization in the Yangzi Delta). Beijing: shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2000.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of History, University of California at Irvine.

Like most other aspects of Chinese intellectual life, economic history suffered badly during the 1960s and 1970s. In the generation that began rebuilding the field thereafter, probably the single most productive scholar has been Li Bozhong, now of Qinghua University. Professor Li has also been noteworthy for his efforts throughout the last twenty years to encourage Chinese scholars to engage seriously with the very different paradigms favored by most of their colleagues in the West, Taiwan and Japan — and vice versa. Yet only a fraction of Li’s massive scholarly output is available to those who do not read Chinese. The following review attempts to hit many of the highlights of his work by considering two recent complementary volumes, only one of which is translated: Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 and Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-industrialization in Jiangnan). Together, they paint a fascinating, though incomplete, picture of the economy of the Yangzi Delta (or Jiangnan),1 which was the richest region in China, and among the richest regions in the world from roughly 1000 until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion (1851-64 — probably the most destructive civil war in history, killing perhaps as many as 20,000,000 people), and the onset of rapid industrialization in Northwestern Europe fundamentally changed the social, political, and economic landscape.

In Agricultural Development, Li argues forcefully against two basic views of the Delta’s agriculture in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods: 1) the claims of some Chinese Marxist scholars that the Delta remained a subsistence-oriented “feudal” economy in which most peasants had very limited contact with the market until the nineteenth century; 2) the claim of some Western scholars that Malthusian pressures and very limited technological change produced a slow but steady trend of immiseration over the period from roughly 1250 (when the rate of technological progress seems to have slowed considerably) until at least the mid-nineteenth century, and perhaps until well into the twentieth century. (A variant of this latter view, sometimes called the “involutionary” position, claims that living standards remained basically unchanged over the long haul, while the amount of labor required to obtain this standard kept increasing, so that immiseration came in the form of more work for the same rather limited per capita output rather than in the form of a decline in per capita output.) Li argues instead that: a) positive technological change continued in Jiangnan agriculture throughout this period, particularly in the areas of fertilizer use and water control; b) local factor markets continued to become more efficient, facilitating the increasingly rational allocation of labor and capital; c) long distance trade in various products expanded dramatically, allowing the region to benefit by pursuing its comparative advantage in cotton and silk production, and importing rice, timber, soybeans, etc.; d) the gradual decline in farm size as population increased did not lead to under-employment.2 On the contrary, increased double-cropping and other measures meant that the labor year for peasant males stayed about the same, while output per labor day actually rose; meanwhile women increasingly exited agriculture (in which they had never been very productive anyway), and earned more per day by moving into rapidly-growing textile trades; e) deliberate fertility control became fairly widespread by the eighteenth century, considerably reducing any Malthusian pressures and; f) because of all these factors, both aggregate and per capita income increased slowly but steadily during this period. (Li does not attempt to calculate total factor productivity, but makes it clear that he thinks growth in output outstripped the rate of growth in inputs.) He sees these positive trends coming to an end — and even then, only a temporary end — with the coming of the Opium War (1839-42) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which he argues aborted the development of a national market, and led to the breakdown of law and order. (In a more recent paper, he has suggested a slightly earlier turning point, arguing that a prolonged period of exceptionally bad weather and flooding began about 1820, doing lasting ecological damage and contributing to the calamities of the mid-nineteenth century.)

The basic arguments of Proto-Industrialization are similar in spirit. Li’s most basic point — that handicraft production for the market by Delta households grew enormously between the mid-Ming and mid-Qing — is not much in doubt, but he adds a number of important further observations. First, he broadens the scope of inquiry beyond the relatively well-studied silk and cotton cloth industries, providing very useful discussions of food-processing, tool-making, bleaching and dyeing, residential construction, boat-building, and so on. While he does not have the level of detail on any one of these sectors that one would hope for, his work on most of these industries is a significant advance over anything we had before.

Second, Li shows us that the growth of production in almost all of these sectors was accompanied by increasing levels of specialization, in two senses: a) in the sense that the tasks of production were increasingly sub-divided; and b) that consumers were increasingly purchasing these goods rather than making them for themselves, and so increasingly concentrating their work effort on production for the market rather than “Z-goods” for auto-consumption. (The latter point is less well documented than the former; while Li is able to show burgeoning urban markets, both in the Delta and beyond, for all sorts of ready-made goods, the evidence on rural consumption is sparser.) Along with this increased specialization, Li also assembles evidence that the average size of production units was growing in most of these sectors. In the case of spinning and weaving, where most production continued to be done in households, he makes a generally convincing case that an increasing share of output was controlled by merchants operating on a large scale, who controlled access to often distant markets, imposed increasingly exacting quality standards in order to maintain those markets, and thus had an increasing influence on the production process, even without using credit and the provision of raw materials to control direct producers the way that European “putting-out” merchants often did.

Third, Li’s surveys of specific industries other than textiles make a strong case showing slow but continuing technological development, expansion of markets, and an increasingly complex division of labor. In contrast to an older version of Chinese economic history (pioneered by Japanese scholars in the 1930s, but later widely accepted around the world), which saw an enormous spurt of technological change during the Song dynasty (960-1279), followed by stagnation or even regression thereafter, Li argues that the Song revolutions have been over-emphasized: not because they weren’t important, but because the diffusion and subsequent small improvements of many major inventions pioneered in that period took centuries, and it was those processes that gave Song-era breakthroughs much of their impact. This, too, is a revision of the conventional wisdom that is gaining adherents among both Chinese and Western scholars. While Li has not unearthed enough quantitative data to let us make reliable estimates of, for instance, labor productivity for most of these sectors, what little we can do with this data tends to suggest continued improvements in most sectors, and snapshots of productivity levels in particular sectors that would compare well with other advanced areas in the world until probably some time in the eighteenth century. What we do not see, however, is a shift over time among sectors toward more capital intensive and energy intensive pursuits — and this, as we shall see, is crucial to Li’s overall argument.

Fourth, Li argues that the combination of proto-industrialization and rising yields in agriculture (discussed above) propelled a significant improvement in per capita income and standard of living between 1550 and 1850, despite significant setbacks in the mid-seventeenth century ( a period of civil war, foreign invasion, and massive epidemics) and a decline in the average size of family farms. Here he not only disagrees with the still-regnant Chinese Marxist orthodoxy, which insists that China remained essentially a subsistence economy until the Opium War, but also with American partisans of “involution,” who maintain that the late imperial period was characterized by miniscule gains in income achieved at the expense of very large increases in labor inputs. By contrast, his position comes much closer to what is sometimes called the “California school” of social and economic historians, who argue that economic development in the Delta more or less kept pace with that in the most advanced parts of Europe until the onset of widespread factory industrialization. (Full disclosure statement: this reviewer is a charter member of the California school.) But in some ways, he goes even further than they do: while most of the “Californians” see economic expansion (or at least per capita economic growth) in the Delta slowing by the late eighteenth century, Li’s argument in these two books (though not always since then) suggests that the basic dynamics of growth continued unchanged until China’s mid-nineteenth-century catastrophes.

But while Li is content to rely on largely exogenous factors to explain the decline of the Delta after 1840, he does devote considerable attention to analyzing why the highly productive agriculture, commerce and handicrafts he describes did not spawn something more like classical English industrialization sometime before that date. He argues that institutional structure, surplus available for investment, and the educational level of the workforce were all quite adequate, and that there was widespread interest in productivity-enhancing technological change. Consequently, he looks beyond social, intellectual, and political factors, and finds his answers in geography and the supply of natural resources. In particular, he emphasizes a dearth of energy sources that he says gave Jiangnan production a marked bias away from anything energy-intensive, creating what he calls “a super light industrial” economy. Being very densely populated (and to a great extent reclaimed from marshes, rather than by clearing forest), the Delta had relatively few trees and not very many large work animals; it had no coal or peat, and, being at sea level, relatively little water power. Conditions were even unfavorable for the large-scale use of wind power, though some windmills were established. Thus, Jiangnan did what it was best at: sustaining a very productive agriculture (especially in rice: cotton yields do not seem to have been outstanding), mobilizing the large numbers of people it could feed to produce handicrafts, and taking advantage of its location at the mouth of a river system draining roughly a third of China, plus the coastline and the one thousand mile Grand Canal, to engage in very widespread trade. That it did not shift much labor into areas in which it had serious natural deficiencies, such as energy-intensive heavy industry, should not blind us to what it did achieve, or to the ways in which, Li argues, Jiangnan’s “proto-industrialization,” like its Western counterpart, laid the basis for the growth of modern industry in the region later on.

Much of Li’s argument here parallels the arguments of Western scholars in the so-called “California school,” including myself: thus it is not surprising that I find most of his argument convincing, and welcome the wealth of additional data he has brought to bear. His reconstructions of agricultural productivity and factor inputs, while certainly open to question, are generally the best we have: in particular, I think his claim that both male and female labor productivity rose significantly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, despite a large increase in population, is at least well-enough based that the burden of proof should now rest on those who wish to argue for stagnation or decline. (The problems with these estimates are that a) the documentary base is fairly narrow, and b) because this was an agriculture with both very high inputs of labor, fertilizer, etc., and very high outputs per acre, relatively small percentage changes in assumptions about either yields or the costs of inputs can lead to uncomfortably large changes in estimates of net output.) The particular care that Li has lavished on changes in fertilizer use and their effects has important implications for environmental history as well as economic history. In terms of industry, his attempt to broaden discussion beyond textiles is particularly welcome, as is his general argument that we should look at what happened within the major sectors of this economy, rather than focusing on why the relative size of light and heavy industrial sectors did not shift. And his attention to environmental and resource problems is also quite helpful, though I think there is evidence that these problems began to constrict the Jiangnan economy somewhat sooner than Li allows, and that some of them were exacerbated by state policies (especially restrictive mining policies, and very limited government investment in transportation infrastructure beyond maintaining the massive Grand Canal) in ways that he does not address. His discussion of the conditions for technological change also seems to me a bit too hurried. While he has certainly made an important contribution by showing that such change had not stopped in Qing-era Jiangnan, there is still some reason to think that its pace had slowed, and no sign that it was speeding up the way it was in Europe. And while Li makes a good case for enough literacy, availability of various manuals, and so on to perpetuate continued diffusion of best practices, we need to know considerably more than we currently do about the rate at which new innovations were being introduced, and about such matters as patterns of association among artisans, the extent to which they were aware of elite science, and what was happening in that science, among other things. But this is only to say that no one scholar can do everything. The main problem, for the foreseeable future, will remain data: Li’s re-interpretations of Chinese economic history have generated new hypotheses considerably faster than we have been able to find material that will satisfy skeptics. But this simply means that we can thank Li, along with his other contributions, for keeping ourselves and our students employed for quite some time to come.

Notes: 1. Technically, these two expressions are not synonymous, but they are now used interchangeably in Chinese studies. “Jiangnan,” meaning “South of the (Yangzi) River,” in Chinese, refers to only part of the geographic Delta, omitting the generally less prosperous North Bank. Most Westerners now use “Yangzi Delta” to refer to Jiangnan, rather than to a more geographically accurate, inclusive region. Jiangnan is also somewhat vague, since it does not refer to a political jurisdiction with officially set boundaries. Professor Li uses a fairly broad definition of the area, though still not as broad as that used by, for instance, Wang Yeh-chien or myself; some other scholars, such as Philip Huang, have adopted a much narrower definition, including only the most densely populated prefectures near Suzhou. Li’s Jiangnan, with an area of roughly 43,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles), had perhaps as many as 36,000,000 people by 1850.

2. Li favors a population figure of 20,000,000 for Jiangnan in 1620, and 36,000,000 in 1850, for a 0.3 percent per annum growth rate. These figures roughly match those of Cao Shuji’s recent work on Chinese population (Zhongguo renkou shi (History of Chinese Population), Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2000), and appear to be widely accepted among Chinese scholars. Many Western scholars, however, favor a lower figure for 1850, following G. William Skinner’s argument that mid-nineteenth century population totals for various parts of China were seriously inflated. (“Sichuan’s Population in the Nineteenth Century: Lessons from Disaggregated Data,” Late Imperial China, 8:1 (1987): 1-79.) Population growth appears to have been minimal in the region after about 1770.

Ken Pomeranz is author of numerous works including The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press, 2000 and The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937, University of California Press, 1993.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Market, the State, and the Export-Import Bank of the United States, 1934-2000

Author(s):Becker, William H.
McClenahan Jr., William M.
Reviewer(s):Bean, Jonathan J.

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

William H. Becker and William M. McClenahan, Jr., The Market, the State, and the Export-Import Bank of the United States, 1934-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 340 pp. $80 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-81143-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan J. Bean, Department of History, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.

In recent years, “globalization” has become a hot topic in U.S., European and world politics, as young (and not-so-young) demonstrators have taken to the streets protesting free trade and the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The resulting media attention has raised the name recognition of those institutions. Yet very few Americans could properly identify the Export-Import Bank as “the United States’ export credit agency” (p. ix) and one of the country’s chief instruments of free trade. In this superbly researched monograph, Becker and McClenahan highlight the important role “Ex-Im” has played, not only in promoting international trade but also in serving U.S. foreign policy interests. In so doing, they have made an important contribution to the scholarly literature on international trade. The hefty price tag and thick narrative, however, will prevent this book from reaching a broader audience.

This is a commissioned history; Becker and McClenahan were successful bidders for a sixty-fifth anniversary commemoration of Ex-Im’s founding. Despite its commemorative status, this is a serious scholarly study enriched by “full access to the Bank’s records and to its personnel,” including many oral interviews with agency history makers (p. x). In addition to on-site records, the authors delved into documents at the National Archives and at other government agencies. The Export-Import Bank agreed to ongoing peer review by the eminent professor of economic history Richard Sylla (New York University) and the authors retained copyright. The end result is an exhaustively researched manuscript that stands among the best-documented histories of any federal agency.

The Export-Import Bank began as the offspring of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union in December 1933. Two months later, prodded by U.S. exporters hoping to pry open a new market, FDR established, by Executive Order, an Export-Import Bank to finance trade with the U.S.S.R., a venture that foundered on the issue of unpaid pre-revolutionary loans. Simultaneously, Roosevelt created a second Export-Import Bank to do business with a new, friendly regime in Cuba. The Banks’ trustees merged the two banks into one — originally financed by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation — and expanded Ex-Im’s mission to include markets around the world, except the U.S.S.R. The Bank received Congressional backing in 1935 and became an independent agency ten years later. By statute, Ex-Im was to avoid competing with commercial banks; assume risk on longer-term loans that they would not accept; yet still assure a reasonable chance of repayment. At the same time, President Roosevelt and his successors repeatedly called on the Bank to serve foreign policy ends that went against the grain of these statutory requirements. Thus, from the beginning, Ex-Im served the conflicting interests of exporters and the foreign policy establishment of the U.S. government. In short, the Bank navigated uneasily “between the state and the market” (p. 8) throughout its history.

One major theme is that “businesslike values” (p. 2) permeated the Bank but U.S. diplomats “tested many times” this “core market orientation” (p. 3). Tested indeed! The authors spend so much time on the fascinating, ever-changing role Ex-Im played in foreign policy that the reader gets the impression that the bankers at Ex-Im were helpless pawns in the hands of diplomats and governments friendly to the United States. This is undoubtedly a false impression gained by the weight of presentation, yet one that could have been countered by more frequent mention of “businesslike” statistics such as loan loss rates, profitability, and so on.

As it stands, the foreign policy story is one that should interest diplomatic historians: During the late 1930s, Ex-Im made risky loans to Latin American countries to forestall German Nazi intervention; after World War II, the Bank was the first U.S. agency to help reconstruct Western Europe before the Marshall Plan went into effect; during the 1950s and 1960s, it financed development projects in the Third World to counter communist movements. Later, in the 1970s, Ex-Im negotiated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to “level the playing field” among export credit agencies in Europe and North America after that era’s brutal trade wars.

The past two decades have proven particularly challenging for the Export-Import Bank. The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s brought to power laissez-faire conservatives who were skeptical of subsidies for bankers. Meanwhile, a Third World debt crisis and a strong dollar led to plummeting U.S. exports, a weak Ex-Im portfolio, and a severe institutional crisis. During the early 1990s, however, the Bank “reinvented” itself by abandoning the direct credit market and relying almost exclusively on loan guarantees through private banks. The authors note that this strong market orientation is unique among Western export credit agencies, which are much more state-oriented. In the epilogue, the authors reflect on recent international financial crises that have reintroduced the potential of Ex-Im as a “lender of last resort” when private capital flees foreign markets.

There is no evidence of institutional bias in this organizational history. Becker and McClenahan give plenty of airtime to critics who have accused Ex-Im of serving as “corporate welfare” and as an agent of the U.S. military-diplomatic-industrial complex. If anything, their judgments on these controversies are too even-handed: After presenting both sides, the authors frequently hedge their judgments, leaving the readers to judge for themselves the merits of the case. A bit more controversy might have spiced up an otherwise dry and neutral presentation of the facts. For readers short on time, the authors provide a splendid summary in their introduction. Specialists will gain much more, however, from the detailed narrative that follows. Overall, this book earns “two thumbs up.”

Jonathan J. Bean is Professor of History at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. He is the author of Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration (University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development

Author(s):Hatcher, John
Bailey, Mark
Reviewer(s):Richardson, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and

Theory of England’s Economic Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2001. xiii + 254 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924411-1; $19.95 (paperback),

ISBN: 0-19-924412-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Richardson, Department of Economics, University of

California, Irvine.

Modelling the Middle Ages, by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, provides a

cogent and comprehensive survey of the history and economics of late medieval

England and an invaluable survey of the history of thought concerning those

topics. Scholars interested in these issues should read this book. It will be

especially valuable for graduate and undergraduate economic history courses,

where I expect it to be widely adopted, and for researchers, like myself, with

an interest in medieval England but who had to learn the material on their own,

because they studied at institutions that lacked leading (or any) scholars in

the field. I base my strong recommendation on three features of the text:

First, the book is insightful. It demystifies the beliefs underlying the

arguments of most economic historians — beliefs derived from intellectual

foundations established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Adam

Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and other eminent scholars. It

explains how and why the work of those intellectual forefathers generated three

grand explanatory models, “population and resources,” “class power and property

relations,” and “commercialization,” and how those models influenced debates

among historians and social scientists concerning the causes and consequences

of economic development during the Middle Ages.

Second, the book is useful, in the most practical sense of the term. It

summarizes two hundred years of scholarly literature in a few hundred pages

while building a framework, a lexicon, and a syntax that will allow scholars to

compare and contrast their ideas more precisely than they currently can. It

will have wide applications in other fields, such as global history,

particularly global history, where similar models form the foundation of

similar debates.

Third, the book is clear, lucid, and accurate. In some cases, the book explains

author’s ideas better than the original expositors did themselves. The clarity

of the prose and the organization of the argument assure the material will be

accessible to students at all levels.

The foreword and introduction establish the motives of the authors and sketch

an outline of their argument. The authors hope to fulfill a “pressing need of

undergraduate students studying the medieval economy for an introduction to the

theory and practice behind the grand models of development which dominate the

subject (p. vii).” As I mentioned earlier, they more than accomplish that goal.

The authors also hope to contribute to the ongoing scholarly debates concerning

the economic development of medieval England. They plan to compare and contrast

the intellectual and empirical content of the methods and models used to study

medieval English economic history and in doing so shed light on the advantages

and disadvantages of each method as well as advance our knowledge of the Middle

Ages. They also accomplish this goal, as my description of the remainder of the

book, and hopefully your reading of the text, should demonstrate.

Chapter 1, Methods and Models, explains “why the medieval period has proved so

attractive to the builders of historical models, and theorizing so attractive

to medieval historians (p. 3).” The Middle Ages lasted for more than five

centuries. During that long era, transformations occurred in almost every area

of economic and social life. Merely describing these changes is a challenging

task. “Historians cannot hope to describe, analyze, and explain them by

gathering and narrating factual information alone (p. 4).” They must choose to

present certain facts and materials but not others. Their emphasize depends

upon their point of view, their prior beliefs, and the point which they wish to

make. Theory and speculation are therefore indispensable ingredients of any

grand survey. They impose a degree of coherence and clarity and force scholars

to fit the facts into a manageable working framework. In this way, order can be

imposed upon the chaos of vast numbers of pieces of information and answers

formulated to crucial questions. In addition, abstract concepts and formal

models help scholars explain why things happened as they did and what might

have happened in counterfactual cases. Explaining such things requires more

than mere narration. Historical changes lasting several centuries and

penetrating all spheres of economic, social, and political activity were the

culmination of an infinite number of individual events. No one can describe

them all. Comprehending them requires analysis, a systematic approach to the

material, the sorting and grading of information, and the weighing of the

relative merits of different concepts. Models, in other words, are needed to

seek the reasons behind vast historical processes such as the rise and decline

of serfdom and feudalism, the rise of the money economy and capitalism, the

rise and contraction of economic activity, and the growth of urbanization and

industrialization.

Chapter 2, Population and Resources, focuses on the first of the grand

supermodels, and the ways in which assumptions influence its results and in

which it impinges on historical analysis “in both a helpful and harmful

manner.” The population and resource model, also known as the demographic or

Malthusian model, stems from a core set of simple economic relationships. The

productivity of agriculture depends upon the relative scarcity of the two prime

factors of production: land and labor. As addition units of one input are

employed while the others are held constant, the output generated by each

additional unit will eventually fall (diminishing returns). Thus, when land is

abundant relative to labor, the productivity of the land will be low. The

productivity of labor will be high. Products of the land, like foodstuffs and

raw materials such as leather, wool, and wood, will be inexpensive. Wages will

be high. When labor is abundant relative to land, the productivity of the land

will be high. The productivity of labor will be low. Food and rents will be

expensive. Real wages will fall. There is clear potential for applying such

basic supply and demand analysis to conditions prevailing in medieval England.

“There is abundant evidence to show that over the longer term there was a

strong correlation between rising population, on the one hand, and increasing

land values and agricultural prices, and falling real wages, and, on the other,

between declining population, falling prices and land values, and rising real

wages. By this analysis the Middle Ages falls into two sharply contrasting

periods; with the broad experience of much of the era up until the fourteenth

century conforming to the former set of circumstances, and the later

characteristics persisting throughout much of the late fourteenth and fifteenth

centuries” (pp. 22-23).

Chapter 3, Class Power and Property Relations, examines the second grand

supermodel, which begins with the presumption that the keys to understanding

the economic development lie in the social relations and political and legal

institutions of society. Of particular importance are the “relations between

the leading classes and in developments of what are termed the ‘mode of

production'” (p. 67). The most popular models of this type are those

constructed by Karl Marx and his intellectual descendants. For Marxists,

“history is a dialectical process in which the future is shaped by the present,

just as the present was shaped by the past, and each distinct era of human

development — ancient, oriental, feudal, capitalist — generates from within

itself the conditions which will ultimately transform it” (pp. 67-8). Marxists

focus their attention on a limited range of issues, particularly relations and

conflicts among social classes as well as the mode, means, and relations of

production, as the main agents of social and economic change and development.

Thus, the dynamic for the transformation of medieval society lay primarily in

the relationship between lords and peasants, who were the two principle classes

of feudal society. The relationship was inevitably one of conflict, due to the

opposing interests of landlord and tenant, and eventually resulted in a ‘crisis

of feudalism,’ whose “onset is usually located in the late thirteenth and early

fourteenth centuries” (p. 71). At that time, the increasingly excessive

depredations of the landlord class undermined agricultural productivity,

plunged the peasantry into poverty, and inspired them to struggle against the

exploitative social system.

Chapter 4, Commercialization, Markets, and Technology, focuses on commercial

activity and technical progress. The bulk of the space is devoted to the

rapidly expanding evidentiary base and to the discussion of ways in which

markets and technology could overcome Malthusian, Ricardian, and Marxist

constraints on economic development. There are two basic theories. Improvements

in agriculture — such as improving land management, crop rotation, and

selective breeding of crops and animals — raised the productivity of land and

labor. Urbanization and commercialization expanded the scope of the market, the

division of labor, and the wealth of nations.

Chapter 5, The Importance of Time and Place, explores the weaknesses of the

models discussed in the previous chapters from three different perspectives.

The first exposes the difficulties that emerge when the models are applied to

both the early and later Middle Ages. In each case, assumptions needed to apply

and conclusions drawn from the application of a model to the earlier era

conflict with those from the later period. The second reviews the wide range of

alternative models that have been proposed and which illuminate inadequacies in

existing models. The third tests the validity of the assumptions and methods of

each of the major supermodels by applying them to a particular test case: the

rise and decline of serfdom in medieval England.

Chapter 6, Beyond the Classic Supermodels, stresses the limitations of the

models described during the previous chapters. The principal flaws are their

neglect of social factors, institutions, historical contingency, and the

uncertainties inherent in individual behavior and group dynamics. The chapter

ends on a hopeful note, by suggesting ways in which the limitations of these

models might be overcome historically, empirically, and theoretically.

Overall, the book does an excellent job of accomplishing its two goals. The

first was to provide a clear and accessible introduction to the conceptual

frameworks that have dominated this field for many decades. The second was to

assess the strengths, weaknesses, relevance, and credibility of the models. The

book itself has many strengths and few weaknesses. I think that in the future

students interested in this topic will read it.

Gary Richardson is Assistant Professor of Economics at UC-Irvine. His

dissertation, “Social Change and Industrial Expansion before the Industrial

Revolution” was completed at the UC-Berkeley.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Soul’s Economy: Market and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920

Author(s):Sklansky, Jeffrey
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Jeffrey Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market and Selfhood in American

Thought, 1820-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

xiii + 313 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2725-8; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-8078-5398-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest

University.

Jeffrey Sklansky traces the ideas of seventeen nineteenth-century American

intellectuals as they rethought the nature of society and of the individual in

society (see listing at end of review.) He argues that this rethinking was

prompted by nineteenth-century changes in the American economy. The

Revolutionary era’s “republican” thought had assumed an autonomous individual

as the locus of economic productivity, buttressed by a wide dispersion of

ownership of productive wealth. Such an individual pursued economic interests

through contracts; society was constructed on this model (p. 5). This, of

course, paralleled the axioms of classical economics, which became the implicit

target of the intellectuals Sklansky covers.

Sklansky pictures an ever-growing dissonance between nineteenth-century

economic reality and the republican model as “manufacturers and planters laid

claim to the mantle of the autonomous individual as they consolidated control

over land, labor and capital” (p.6). According to Sklansky, the intellectuals

he writes about restated the meaning of individuality and society to conform to

this new reality, and in some measure validate it, while preserving the

terminology of the old era. For example, they “championed free will. But they

redirected willpower away from controlling labor and property, toward

controlling belief and habit instead” (p. 8). Another element common to almost

all seventeen thinkers is the interpretation of concepts once taken as

objective reality (e.g., physical property, natural law, natural prices based

on labor input) in subjective directions (e.g., intellectual property,

internalized cultural mores, or prices reflecting marginal utility). This

reconceptualization, along with others, allowed the emerging concentrated

economy to proceed with an intellectual framework to validate it, a framework

not otherwise supplied by the thought of the Revolutionary era. Sklansky is

clear that this framework had its blind spots, that its fruits were not all

good, and that it may have simply postponed the facing of some issues.

Sklansky’s book is the result of many years’ acquaintance with his subjects’

writings. It is obvious that he is thoroughly familiar with their writings and

with the nuances of their thought. Nevertheless, this reviewer would suggest

that the reader keep four caveats in mind.

First, in order to sharpen the difference between the ideas of his

nineteenth-century subjects and the Revolutionary-Enlightenment era, Sklansky

may exaggerate differences. For instance, he speaks in one place of “the

momentous shift of the center of economic analysis [in the late Enlightenment]

from the realm of production to the realm of exchange [in his subjects’

thought]” (p. 123). However, one does not find such an exclusive emphasis on

production in Adam Smith, who essentially defines economic analysis of the

earlier period. Very early in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter

II), Smith famously argued that the full advantages of the division of labor

resulted from the human “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for

another.” Thus, Smith hardly pushed exchange to the periphery of economics.

Second, having perhaps sharpened differences too much in order to create his

thesis, Sklansky tries too hard to make his thinkers fit the pattern he has

established. I am familiar enough with Henry George to be uncomfortable with

Sklansky’s conclusion on George. According to Sklansky, Henry George “defined

the bountiful social force of market society in the terms not of political

economy but of modern sociology and psychology … not in terms of ownership of

resources but in terms of participation in a mainstream of guiding desires and

compelling social norms” (p. 135).

This description hardly describes George’s core analysis, which relied on

statements more like the following: “the denser the population the more minute

the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and

distribution” (Progress and Poverty, Book III, chapter I). This quote

does not sound like psychology or sociology, but traditional political economy.

As well, there is little about “guiding desires and compelling social norms”

when George writes of urban land (which is the crux of the matter for him). He

writes “[To] labor expended in the subdivided branches of production, which

require proximity to other producers … [urban land] will yield much larger

returns [than in agriculture]” (Progress and Poverty, Book IV, Chapter

II). Not only does this not sound like psychology or sociology, but it is

typical of the technical, economic analysis that is central to George’s answer

to the question: how does progress produce poverty? George’s emphasis was

strongly on the productive process (he contributed early notions of scale and

agglomeration economies); on factors of production and their ownership (which

the single tax was to remedy); and on the staples of classical political

economy such as rent theory and the division of labor. Sklansky mars an

otherwise insightful summary of George by extrapolating to a conclusion that

lands too far from the original Henry George.

Third, it is fair enough for Sklansky to define a loose school of thought and

to concentrate on members of that school. However, given that this school

presumably arose in response to an intellectual crisis, Sklansky probably owes

his readers some check on whether other American intellectuals were aware of

this crisis. For example, Francis Wayland (not one of Sklansky’s subjects) in

the 1830s authored major texts on moral philosophy and political economy that

were to become the standards in American colleges. In them, Wayland promulgated

an economics that showed no discomfort with Enlightenment individualism,

property rights based on natural law, laissez-faire, competitive markets and

minimalist government. And he did this while replacing Malthusian pessimism

with an American optimism based on belief in technological and scientific

progress in the realm of production. Judging from the popularity and durability

of Wayland’s writings in American colleges, nineteenth-century economic changes

produced no intellectual crisis in the minds of many.

Fourth, in the nature of his case, Sklansky presents his school of thought in

contrast to what went before. Yet, at least some of the ideas of his subjects

simply restated longstanding themes in American thought. For example, several

of the ideas of Congregationalist theologian Horace Bushnell, as summarized by

Sklansky, hardly were new; and because they were not new, they can hardly be

viewed as a response to the changing economics of America. Played against

Enlightenment rationalism, Bushnell’s emphasis on faith as subjective

experience rather than as assent to the objective truth of doctrines might seem

new. However, a good hundred years before Bushnell, the Methodist John Wesley

and Moravians in Europe and America emphasized religion of the heart.

Similarly, evangelical revivalism (from as early as Jonathan Edwards) surely

was an effort to reach the heart of the listener — if not in ways Bushnell

would have approved.

Sklansky concludes, accurately I think, that Bushnell’s emphasis on the

formation of a child’s character by its family surely was a “model of social

life in which proprietary autonomy had no place, in which indeed dependence

formed the organizing principle [contrary to the republican model]” (p. 59).

True enough; but as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, Cotton

Mather implied a role for parents in shaping their children.

These caveats aside, I believe Sklansky has provided essays that catch much of

the character of the thought of these nineteenth-century American

intellectuals. I base this on familiarity with the writings of some of his

subjects — admittedly not all. Even when Sklansky goes beyond summarizing his

subjects’ ideas, his thesis — subject to the caveats above — has merit. I

draw that conclusion, in part, from my acquaintance with some of the writings

of Horace Mann, the pioneer in public education. Although Sklansky does not

include Mann among his seventeen, Mann reacted in much the way Sklansky’s

subjects reacted to the conflict between nineteenth-century realities and

Revolutionary era philosophy. In Mann’s terminology, the autonomous

individualists who resisted paying education taxes were essentially

irresponsible moral “hermits.” He had a clear vision of the socialization of

children by culture; he claimed that society collectively owed a debt to its

children. He defined producers as the beneficiaries of hundreds of generations’

worth of accumulation of capital and knowledge, not as autonomous

wealth-creators. A main focus of Mann’s educational scheme was to create

workers disciplined for the emerging industrial America; as others in

Sklansky’s book did, Mann had turned his back on the Revolutionary era’s model

of small, autonomous producers who owned their own productive capital. This is

to say that Sklansky’s thesis seems generally consistent with other things I

know about the thought of that era.

Sklansky’s book covers the following thinkers: R. W. Emerson, Horace Bushnell,

Margaret Fuller in chapter 2; Henry C. Carey, George Fitzhugh and Henry Hughes

in chapter 3; William Graham Sumner and Henry George in chapter 4; William

James, John Dewey, and G. Stanley Hall in chapter 5; Simon Pattten, Thorstein

Veblen, Lester Ward and Edward Ross in chapter 6; Thomas and Charles Cooley in

chapter 7.

Donald Frey is author of “Francis Wayland’s 1830s Textbooks: Evangelical Ethics

and Political Economy,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, June

2002.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR

Author(s):Resnick, Stephen A.
Wolff, Richard D.
Reviewer(s):Harrison, Mark

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, Class Theory and History:

Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

xix + 353 pp. $85 (hardback), ISBN: 0-415-93317-X; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-415-93318-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Harrison, Department of Economics, University of

Warwick.

This book has twin objectives. Parts I and II (“Communism” and “State

Capitalism”) lay out the authors’ theory of political economy and social

relations. Part III, which is more than half the book in length, then applies

the framework to “The Rise and Fall of the USSR.”

The book offers three main outcomes. First, at the core of Resnick and Wolff’s

understanding of what drives any society are the mechanisms and channels by

which it appropriates and distributes the surplus product. This, they argue,

follows the Marxian tradition. From here, they criticize a number of

alternative existing approaches, some that claim to be Marxian and some that do

not. The alternatives, they believe, place too much emphasis on the

distribution of power and not enough on the distribution of resources. The

problem that they find with starting from the distribution of power is that you

can’t pin it down empirically; when you look closely at the facts power turns

out always to be diffused through society. Instead, they prefer to try to pin

down how the surplus product is appropriated and distributed.

Second, Resnick and Wolff categorize various mechanisms for appropriating and

distributing the surplus product; most important from the point of view of the

book are “ancient,” feudal, capitalist, socialist, and communist mechanisms.

They use this framework to classify various kinds of institutions that existed

in Russia and the Soviet Union before 1917, during the 1920s, the 1930s, the

postwar period, and after the Soviet collapse.

Third, while properly impressed by the sheer variety and intermingling of

institutions of different kinds in all their phases of development, the authors

conclude that the dominant mode of production in Russia and the Soviet Union

throughout the twentieth century was capitalist: plain capitalist before 1917

and after 1991, and state-capitalist in between. Thus while political power

certainly changed hands during the Bolshevik Revolution and when the Soviet

Union fell, one way and then another, the basic mode of production did not

change and so less changed in an underlying sense than might appear at first

sight.

Does Soviet history truly bear out the authors’ theory? I must say yes, but in

a sense for which they may not thank me: in my view the theory is trivial. The

authors correctly wish to avoid the traps of determinism, and specifically

those of the economic kind. Many Marxists of earlier generations based

deterministic predictions on economic trends of one kind or another that

eventually came to nought. Instead of determinism Resnick and Wolff offer the

Althusserian concept of “overdetermination”: “all aspects of society condition

and shape one another” (p. 9). The result is that anything can lead to

anything, or not, as the case may be (p. 78). Consequently no predictions are

possible since anything or nothing can happen. A theory that is consistent with

anything happening clearly cannot be refuted from history; in Resnick and

Wolff’s hands the purpose of historical analysis is only to illustrate the

theory, not to subject it to any potentially damaging test.

Thus the book contains many statements that look substantial at first sight and

then seem to dissolve into word play. For example the authors state that the

“history of Russia was shaped, in part, by the specific and ever-changing class

positions occupied and negotiated by its people” (p. 146). Does “in part” mean

a lot or a little? Why doesn’t history shape class as well as class shaping

history? Is the influence of class on history greater than the influence of

history on class? How can we tell, and what difference does it make?

The authors’ criticism of power-based analysis seems to me to be somewhat lazy.

They view political power as a quicksilver that is always everywhere at once in

society, and therefore nowhere in particular. On Russia before the revolution

they write approvingly (p. 162) of the idea that “the czarist state was less

controlling than controlled by Russian society.” On the 1930s (p. 119) they

criticize the idea that Stalin held a “monopoly on power” or brought about a

“revolution from above”; here they refer to the recent “revisionist” historical

literature that shows how there was also a “revolution ‘from below’ in the

precise sense of all sorts of powers wielded by diverse groups of workers,

intellectuals, planners, managers, and others — powers with which Stalin had

to contend and compromise.” In a trivial sense this must be true: political

power is never unlimited. But in a narrower sense it is simply false. While

Stalin generally took decisions rationally, that is to say, taking into account

the opinions and information provided by others, the research of R.W. Davies,

Oleg Khlevniuk, and others has shown clearly that from 1932 onwards Stalin

ceased to have to persuade or compromise with others to reach a decision and

his decisions, once issued, were never challenged. While the political power of

Stalin’s successors was less untrammeled, general secretaries after Stalin

continued to retain extraordinary personal prerogatives, for example, over the

allocation of resources to the “military-industrial complex.”

Perhaps Resnick and Wolff have a fair point in the following sense: some kinds

of power matter more than others, and what they would like us to focus on is

the power to appropriate and distribute resources. The Soviet surplus product

was produced in state enterprises, but where exactly was it appropriated and

distributed? Their answer (p. 166) is that this happened in Vesenkha, the

“Supreme Council of National Economy,” established in 1923 to administer state

industry and “soon reorganised as the Council of Ministers.” Its leaders were

the “first receivers and distributors of the surpluses produced by industrial

laborers” and “functioned similarly to a centralized board of directors of a

private capitalist industrial combine.” There is a factual error: Vesenkha was

a ministry and its successor organization was not the Council of People’s

Commissars (from 1946 Ministers) which had existed from the first days of the

October Revolution, but separate ministries of heavy and light industry and

logging established in 1932. Setting that aside, the authors are still wrong:

the most important decisions about the Soviet surplus product, those that fixed

the annual budgets for investment and defense, were always taken at the very

vertex of the system by the general secretary in the Politburo with no more

than a handful of senior Politburo. Moreover this was no “board of directors”

that, in the worst run of capitalist enterprises, must ultimately account for

its decisions to the shareholders, the markets, or the courts.

The evidence base of the work is remarkable for its breadth, yet still

deficient. I will give two examples. First, Resnick and Wolff claim that the

burdens of taxation on “the desperately poor mass of individuals” had Tsarist

society on the edge of revolt, and this resulted in a growing reliance on

deficit finance in the “last decades” (pp. 160-61). I know of no serious

historical support for the former claim and the latter is plain wrong. From the

1880s onwards, if we exclude the years of the war with Japan, which was

financed by borrowing on orthodox tax-smoothing grounds, the reliance of the

state budget on loans declined steadily. Similarly in relation to the 1920s

Resnick and Wolff suggest that adverse terms of trade on the rural-urban market

deprived farmers of “sufficient revenues to secure their conditions of

existence,” an absurd exaggeration and misunderstanding of the true state of

affairs.

Second, Resnick and Wolff devote major efforts to trying to track changes in

the “appropriation and distribution” of the Soviet surplus product that

resulted from Soviet price policies in the 1920s and collectivization in the

1930s, but they are apparently ignorant of the monograph on this topic

published by A.A. Barsov in 1966, which led to a major controversy among

western economists and historians, notably James R. Millar, Michael Ellman, and

Alec Nove.

As a reader, despite being reasonably familiar with the historical literature

about the Russian and Soviet economies and also with the concepts of classical

Marxian political economy, I found this book very heavy going. On its own this

cannot be a criticism: when my first year students complain that they have to

work hard to learn new concepts I just tell them that’s why they’re at

university. In the present case the book would benefit from more of the

attributes of a good textbook such as definitions that are highlighted and

cross-referenced. My patience was especially taxed by the attempts to

mathematize various kinds of budget constraints, given in the form of equations

yet “the word ‘equation’ does not signal any necessity that … revenues equal

expenditures (p. 179n); the symbolization features many weird acronyms and

subscripts that have no obvious intrinsic meaning and are not indexed anywhere.

These are things that a good editor should have rooted out.

In summary this is a well-intentioned, complex work that is hard to do justice

in a short review, but even summary justice must make an attempt at balance.

The plaudits on the book’s back cover describe it as “path breaking” …

“Whether one agrees or disagrees … no future work … will be able to ignore

the sheer creative verve and intellectual rigor with which [the authors] lay

out their arguments.” While this reviewer is impressed by the efforts put in by

the writers and required of the reader, the path that has been opened seems to

lead nowhere; the rigor is superficial and the verve is not enough.

Mark Harrison is professor of economics at the University of Warwick and

honorary senior research fellow of the Centre for Russian and East European

Studies, University of Birmingham. He is the author of a number of books and

articles on Soviet economic history including most recently “Coercion,

Compliance, and the Collapse of the Soviet Command Economy,” Economic

History Review, 55(3), 2002, pp. 397-433.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire

Author(s):Stearns, Peter N.
Reviewer(s):Aimaq, Jasmine

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Peter N. Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of

Desire. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. xii + 147 pp. $17.95

(paperback), ISBN: 0-415-24409-9; $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-415-24408-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jasmine Aimaq, Department of History, University of

Southern California.

According to author Peter Stearns (George Mason University), the rationale

behind writing Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of

Desire is that our world is currently “permeated by consumerism” — hence

the importance of understanding why consumerism developed and what causes have

sustained it. Stearns, well established as a leading voice in World History,

argues that his study of consumerism will allow a better grasp of various

international issues, and offer some readers new perspectives on themselves. He

then presents a succinct, brief analysis of the evolution of consumerism in a

142-page volume broken into three main parts. The first part analyzes the

emergence of consumerism in the West; the second, the globalization of

consumerism; and the third, the future of consumerism.

A review of this work first requires an establishment of perspective. It

appears that the book is intended for a general readership, since it cites no

primary sources, nor makes references to secondary sources, and can therefore

not be evaluated primarily on the grounds of scholarly rigor and original

research. Stearns’ book must instead be reviewed in terms of the contribution

it makes in broader terms, namely, as a general, insightful presentation of

ideas and perspectives on the emergence of consumerism in human society. To

that end, Stearns proposes to focus on two phenomena: the historical

development of the consumer apparatus, and the emergence of needs and goals

from the customer side. He notes particularly that the book is value-neutral,

treating consumerism as neither inherently good or evil.

In his preface, Stearns explains that Consumerism in World History rests

on a fairly recent strand of research, which shows that contrary to what was

previously thought, the phenomenon of consumerism predates the Industrial

Revolution. Stearns does not, however, identify in what manner his work either

complements or challenges existing research. There is no direct link to

previous scholarship, making it impossible to evaluate the full value of

Stearns’ contribution. Also in his preface, Stearns signals that his work “…

rests on several assumptions, which of course need to be tested in the chapters

to come …” Here, Stearns risks the pitfalls of circular reasoning, namely,

the adoption of ideas that are at once assumptions and cases to be tested.

What follows, however, is a lucid, insightful and highly readable discussion on

the rise and nature of consumerist society, i.e. society in which many people

formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly

do not need for subsistence or for traditional display. Since consumerism is

predominantly associated with “Western” civilization, Stearns spends a third of

the book discussing the emergence of consumerism in Europe, and its eventual

spread to the United States. Stearns argues that consumerism represented

compensation in a modernizing society — compensation for the disruption of

traditional social channels, a means of demonstrating modest achievement in new

ways.

While this point is illuminating, the argument would have greater depth if the

facets of traditional life, and exactly which facets were disrupted and

replaced with consumerism, were explored more fully. Stearns notes the decline

of traditional religion, for instance, but does not analyze the concept of

consumerism as a religion of its own. This has been one of the interesting

contributions of recent studies outside of history — in sociology,

environmental studies, and religious studies, for instance. The emergence of

consumerism parallels the emergence of the free market, and arguments presented

by scholars such as David R. Loy (“The Religion of the Market,” in Visions

of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption and

Ecology) and others emphasize the religious role that consumerism fills in

contemporary society.

The lack of a discussion on this perspective in Stearns’ work is somewhat

disappointing, particularly in light of growing recognition among scholars and

others that consumerism and environmental protection are fundamentally and

dangerously at odds. If, as Stearns states in his preface, we are to study

consumerism in large part to “better grasp a host of international issues,”

consumerism’s relationship to the deteriorating global environment should be

foremost among those. The absence of this issue is especially striking in

Chapter 6, which provides an otherwise illuminating discussion on “The dark

side of Western consumerism.” The strength in this chapter is that Stearns

effectively links critiques of consumerist values to broader movements such as

anti-Americanism. But the relationship between the environment and consumerism,

and the link between critics of consumerist values and spokesmen for the

environment, seems crucial to the subject of the chapter; for some reason,

however, it has been overlooked.

Similarly, the question of gender relations is addressed, but not fully

explored. Stearns provides an insightful account of changes in gender relations

as one aspect in the historical emergence of consumerism. But the relevance of

gender to consumerism extends beyond the early stages of the phenomenon; it

would be relevant to analyze whether contemporary relations between the genders

foster consumerist behavior today, i.e. whether women acquire material goods in

order to demonstrate economic parity with men, whether men pursue material

acquisition to a greater degree than before in an effort to out-compete women,

or alternatively, one another, in a society where women are increasingly

economically self-sufficient. Given Stearns’ expertise on gender in world

history, his full insights on this issue would have been especially welcome.

The discussion in the first part of the book serves largely as an insightful

introduction to different perspectives on consumerism, and provides an

excellent foundation for further research. But it is the second part of the

book that is perhaps the book’s most illuminating and original. Here, Stearns

offers a round-the-world view of consumerism, describing the phenomenon, its

character, manifestation and scope, in Russia, East Asia, Africa and the

Islamic Middle East. Readers who are familiar with studies on consumerism will

welcome this contribution. It is fair to say that so far, most scholars in the

field discuss these regions only to gauge the extent to which indicators of

“Western” civilization and modernization, including consumerism, have

effectively reached non-Western societies. In this work as well as previous

publications, Stearns, while well aware of the influence of the West in the

spread of consumerism, demonstrates a true knowledge and genuine appreciation

of the “world” in “world” history. Once again, however, the discussion would

have benefited from a deeper analysis of societal factors such as the role of

religion, which Stearns discusses as only one of numerous factors, and its

relationship to consumerist values.

The final part of the book, which contains only two brief chapters, deals

briefly with the accelerating pace of globalization and the spread of “Western”

style consumerism. While the first chapter of this section offers nothing

controversial, and serves as a sort of summary of globalization in terms well

understood by scholars, the media and social observers, the second chapter —

and book’s Conclusion — takes a surprising turn. Stearns spends the final

pages of his work investigating “Who wins — Consumerism or Consumers?” This is

surprising mainly because it seems to contradict the author’s introductory

declaration of this study as value-neutral, as an analysis that does not wish

to present consumerism as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Particularly on pp.139-142, Stearns directly addresses the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of

consumerism, asking, for instance, whether consumerism is making the world too

homogeneous, and directly asking whether consumerism “is a good thing, in terms

of human values.” The inclusion of this discussion does not follow from what

the reader is led to expect in the opening of the book, and is therefore a

structural weakness. In terms of the substance of Stearns’ response to the

questions, it is again notable that environmental issues are alluded to in only

the most general way, although they figure very prominently in today’s debate

on consumerism and globalization.

Stearns’ most recent book is nevertheless an excellent introduction to the

study of consumerism in world history, and a highly recommended read for anyone

interested in the subject. Graduate students or scholars interested in

developing a thesis relating to consumerism will come away from this book with

a good general grasp of the phenomenon, and will be happy to find abundant

secondary sources listed as “Suggested Readings” at the end of each chapter.

Jasmine Aimaq is a Visiting Professor at the Departments of History and

International Relations, University of Southern California. She is the author

of a book on French-American relations in Vietnam and several articles, and

currently conducts the USC History Department’s course on Modern World History.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative