Published by EH.Net (November 2021).

Albert Carreras and Xavier Tafunell. Between Empire and Globalization: An Economic History of Modern Spain. Palgrave Studies in Economic History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. x + 350 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN 978-3-030-60503-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Leandro Prados de la Escosura, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Universidad Carlos III.


This is a long overdue English-language textbook on modern Spanish economic history. Earlier ones appeared twenty and forty years ago (Harrison, 1978; Tortella, 2000) and were far less comprehensive. In fact, the reader has to go back half a century to find a more ambitious project (Vicens Vives, 1969), which encompassed from the Neolithic to the 1950s. Although the book is rightly timed, it appears paradoxically at a time when courses on Spanish economic history are rarely taught to economics undergraduates in Spanish universities.

The book offers an overview of Spain’s economic performance during the last two centuries in which Spain’s integration into the international economy and the role of government occupy a central position. Assessing how Spain reacted to globalisation and modern economic growth in advanced countries is the main goal of the volume. Five dimensions: institutional change, broad capital (physical and human) formation, structural change, internationalization, and government intervention are highlighted by the authors. Geographic constraints (physical relief, lack of navigable rivers, dry and extreme weather, and location) complete the picture, adding a negative background. The stress on adverse geography continues a venerable tradition of which Gabriel Tortella’s textbook is an exponent. A major conclusion of the volume is that “the best times for the Spanish economy are always linked to increases in the degree of openness” since “trade closure has tended to be a factor in curbing growth, while openness has promoted it” (pp. 284, 299).

The structure of the book is chronological with two overviews, one that presents long run trends in economic performance, followed by an overall assessment. Different phases are distinguished: three in the “long” nineteenth century: 1789-1840, 1840-90, and 1890-1914; and seven in the next hundred years: 1914-36, 1936-51, 1951-59, 1959-73, 1973-85, 1986-98, and 1999-2017. The post- World War I periodisation corresponds to an institutional perspective, rather than to differences in economic performance, which might have led the authors to single out the fast-growing 1920s and a phase of growth (1986-2007) and another of crisis and recovery (from 2008 onwards) after Spain’s accession to the European Union.

Although the authors claim that they “have avoided debates and have sought to build on wide interpretative consensus” (p. 104), their comprehensive assessment of modern Spain’s economic performance is two books in one: an analytical description, as corresponds to a good conventional textbook, and an interpretation. However, the interpretation is mainly restricted to the “long” nineteenth century. The chronological limits of the interpretation are attributable to the comparative absence of historical debate on the post-1914 period, which suggests, in turn, a lack of research (Prados de la Escosura and Sánchez-Alonso, 2020). The “long” nineteenth century debate is presided over by a dilemma that, according to the authors, economic agents faced: either imitate Britain and industrialise, or give up and become its suppliers. The dilemma is not far from that one presented by W. Arthur Lewis (1978) for world regions between 1870 and 1913. The second option, they argue, suited ‘Spanish economic lobbies” but not Catalan and Basque entrepreneurs, and eventually prevailed.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the volume? A major strength is its impressive and ambitious picture of modern Spain, covering every angle of the international debate on industrialisation and globalisation and providing a new, accurate, and up-to-date description of Spanish economic progress during the last 60 years.  It can be easily argued that the present book represents a landmark not only in Spanish economic history but in international economic history, as few countries, including those of Western Europe and its offshoots, have a comprehensive, well-written, and appealing textbook like this one.

On the downside, the main weakness of the book is that it follows the historical literature too closely for each period, often rendering a fragmented picture. More importantly, the overall macroeconomic view provided in the first and the last chapters is often neglected and even contradicted by the sectoral and piecemeal evidence discussed in the rest of the volume. The book, originally published in Spanish in 2004, has gone through successive updates and this perhaps explains the unsolved tension between the historical literature views and the macroeconomic context. Had the authors presented each chapter within the framework of chapters 1 and 12, the contributions of sectoral developments and economic policies would have been highlighted and the narrative would have been more consistent.

Examples of this mismatch are the contrast between the authors’ pessimistic assessment of the half-century between 1840 and 1890, which they label a “double failure.” For this they draw on old debates on protectionism vs. free trade, as well as the railways’ construction as a speculative bubble and a missed opportunity for domestic industry’s expansion, despite the evidence of fast aggregate growth based on capital accumulation and efficiency gains, in which the railways played a far from negligible part. Similarly, the authors place stress on “weak” domestic demand for cotton and iron and steel goods and poor incentives for industrial development from international markets, even though aggregate industrial output and productivity thrived.

Another shortcoming is the neglect of well-known contributions, such as Pedro Fraile Balbín’s (1991) work on the political economy of protectionism, which would have added a missing dimension to the volume’s narrative, as well as important insights. Occasionally, important additions to the literature are neglected or referred to the further reading section of each chapter, with the unintended consequence of missing views that may have provided new paradigms. Let us consider the case of the first globalisation, which, as shown by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson (1999), represented a pervasive phenomenon including a dramatic reduction in transport and communication costs and a change in attitudes toward trade. In their analytical framework, protectionist policies appear only as a way to mitigate globalisation effects and temporarily delay the unavoidable. Consequently, the old protection-free trade view, in which trade was halted when a phase of liberalisation, as presented in this book, was replaced by one of high tariffs, needs to be revised. Moreover, the distributional effects of raising tariffs are largely neglected in the historical literature of Spain that the authors follow so closely. Protectionism would plausibly have led to a pro-landowner income distribution, a hypothesis supported by the increase in aggregate income inequality. Lastly, the neglect of recent literature is also evident in assertions such as “protectionist measures had an undeniable impact on emigration, reducing it” (p. 95). This was proved wrong by Blanca Sánchez-Alonso (2000), who showed that protection would have pushed workers to emigrate, as one would expect in a simple Heckscher-Ohlin model, in which trade provides an alternative to factor mobility. The authors seem to ignore that it was the depreciation of Spanish currency that prevented migration, by reducing potential emigrants’ purchasing power.

These critical aspects, which can be certainly addressed in next editions, do not detract from the relevance of the book under review. This volume represents a tour de force survey of modern Spanish economic history in the context of international debates on growth and development. I do, therefore, strongly encourage any reader interested in the performance of a middle-income country during the age of globalisation to read this book, as it provides not just a narrative about Spain’s economic history but useful insights that may be the seed of further research.


Fraile Balbín, Pedro. 1991. Industrialización y grupos de presión. La economía política de la protección en España, 1900-1950. Madrid: Alianza.

Harrison, Joseph. 1978. An Economic History of Modern Spain. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Lewis, W. Arthur. 1978. Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913. London: George Allen & Unwin.

O’Rourke, Kevin H., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. 1999. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Prados de la Escosura, Leandro, and Blanca Sánchez-Alonso. 2020. “Economic Development in Spain, 1815–2017.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Economics and Finance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sánchez-Alonso, Blanca. 2000. “European Emigration in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Paradoxical Case of Spain.” Economic History Review 53, 2: 309-330.

Tortella, Gabriel. 2000. The Development of Modern Spain: An Economic History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vicens Vives, Jaime. 1969. An Economic History of Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Leandro Prados de la Escosura is Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Universidad Carlos III and a CEPR Research Fellow. His research into growth, inequality, and development includes Spanish Economic Growth, 1850–2015 (Palgrave Studies in Economic History, 2017).


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