Published by EH.Net (September 2016)

Robert Fitzgerald, The Rise of the Global Company: Multinationals and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xii + 622 pp., $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61496-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Leslie Hannah, London School of Economics.

This is a long-awaited magnum opus from a scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge of multinationals is well displayed in this volume.

It has two great strengths. The first is its coverage of the changing political contexts within which multinationals operated. Other studies are, of course, aware of the devastating effects of wars on (particularly German) multinationals, but no existing work ranges so confidently over the complexities nor adequately conveys the blindness with which participants at the time navigated their ways through the uncertainties created by expropriations and occupations. Those of us who have forgotten which politicians Lockheed bribed, the brand complications created by post-war splits, why the Japanese took over Germany’s Pacific colonies, or how the Kuwait Investment Office was viewed by western intelligence agencies, will find useful pointers to the relevant literature in the text and endnotes. His examples also raise some doubts in my mind as to whether the existing literature’s stress that governments are now more interventionist than in an earlier (supposedly laissez-faire) era is correct.

The second strength is the book’s eclecticism. Fitzgerald is, of course, familiar with the “Anglo-Saxon” country that dominated multinational investing in the nineteenth century (where he begins) and the larger one which dominates it in the twenty-first (where he ends). Yet he appears equally at home with the 1920s competition between the Banque de l’Indochine and Paribas, the extension of Canadian influence in the Caribbean, and Japanese multinationals’ weak modern risk management in Iran. For that reason this book could become a valued and much-thumbed addition to any business historian’s research bookshelf. An added attraction for that purpose (too often neglected in this age of internet searches of online publications) is its superb fifty–page index.

Unfortunately that is not how the publishers and/or author and/or editors have positioned the book. This is a volume in the Economic History Society’s series New Approaches to Economic and Social History, supposedly offering a “concise” survey for “advanced school students and undergraduate historians and economists.” Such words applied to this book risk prosecution under the UK Trade Descriptions Act. There is some attempt to summarize each chapter and sub-sections, but the treatment is far too detailed and unorganized for this purpose. Most undergraduates would find the multiplication of examples impenetrable and directionless and any professor would be doing students a grave disservice in recommending this as a textbook. It would be useful as supplementary reading to generate leads for an essay project (where it is richer in citation of contemporary sources and contains useful warnings against “present-mindedness” in Whiggish perspectives on the past), but Geoffrey Jones’ Multinationals and Global Capitalism, published by Oxford, would more suitably serve as the main course text.

Leslie Hannah lives in Tokyo and is Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. He recently published (with Makoto Kasuya), “Twentieth Century Enterprise Forms: Japan in Comparative Perspective,” Enterprise & Society (2015).

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