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Response to Review no. 28

The main problem of contemporary history is to see it at a distance. Lawrence Freedman appears to have passed through at lest three moods since 1989, to judge by his observations: euphoria, followed by a “post-euphoric mood” and a less gloomy phase “a few years on”. It is impossible to write the history of the twentieth century, and not very useful to criticize it, in terms of such short- term reactions. Can we really believe that readers in 2047 will see Freedman’s ‘`While liberalism may not yet work as a universal ideology, it is the great survivor of the Twentieth century” as a historical judgment and not as a political credo? Even today the odds that it will emerge as “the “great survivor” cannot be more than evens, and most bookmakers would offer odds against the proposition that it is on the way to working as a universal ideology.

Because he is primarily concerned to make a case for his political beliefs (“liberal individualism”) Freedman thinks 1 should also be “best approached as much as a political theorist as a historian” However, The Age of Extremes was written as a warning to those who see this century’s history in terms of a priori ideologies, e.g. as a tug-of-war between “the state” and “the individual” reinforced by the market. As my book points out, the state extended its range, Power and functions almost continuously from the mid-eighteenth century to the last third of the twentieth, across the ideology and politics of all rĂ©gimes. Its growth has thus sometimes been consistent with political or economic liberalism, singly or in combination, sometimes not. After the Great Slump its growth reinforced an liberal democracy while promoting an unprecedented economic upsurge in capitalist economies. History gives no warrant for the belief that in this century “economic growth has come in Spite of the state”, or that the economic miracles, from Spain in the West to Japan and Korea or Taiwan in the East were a triumph of laissez-faire.

Whether or not this secular trend was primarily due to the demands of warfare, as Freedman holds, it could and also was “redirected to more positive purposes” in the welfare states of the Golden Age. These were more than the hope of Freedman’s progressive theorists – actually, in Britain, largely Liberals – T.H Marshall’s “social citizenship”, culmination of the progress from the achievement of civil and political rights, was realized in some respects. ( The current projects to dismantle social rights are not a victory for either the liberal or the individualist ideals.} Freedman is naturally appalled by the pathological extremes of state growth which grew out of the era of global breakdown (my “Age of Catastrophe”), and notably by Soviet Communism. But a view of state development which implies that it has a built-in tendency to travel “the road to serfdom’ belongs to political rhetoric, not history.

Since the early 1970s we have been living in a new era, whose uncertain prospects Freedman recognizes. He may regard them with less worry than I do, but we both stand too close to the present for historical judgment. Yet while I will not die in the last ditch for my name for this, still unconcluded, period (“The Landslide”), few economic historians will doubt that we have Passed a major turning-point in world history. (By the way, few of them would agree with Freedman that the late 1940s and the early 1970s do not mark “obvious punctuation points”) Compared to that “Golden Age” the post-l973 years have been an era of uncertainties, instabilities and difficulties for capitalism, some new, some – like the revival of serious economic crises and permanent mass unemployment in Europe- once familiar. My argument was not that the global economic system is “rolling steadily downhill” – indeed I specifically predict another great leap forward (pp. 570-71), but that it is no longer possible to believe, as it was in the heyday of the “Golden Age” that a way had been found to solve, or at least to minimize, the economic, social and political problems which had convulsed capitalist society in its “Age of Catastrophe”. The historically novel retreat of the state, which Freedman notes, the rise of a virtual free market anarchism, far beyond what even the nineteenth century USA would have considered acceptable to serious political influence, make it more difficult to confront these problems.

How they are to be dealt with is a matter for political debate on which, I hope, The Age of Extremes throws light, but which it specifically refuses to enter. Freedman seems to think that solution lies in “unconstrained free enterprise”, presumably because he assumes that its success in maximizing economic growth ( which may be true since 1973 but was not true for most of the century) will somehow also maximize welfare. But historians know better. As the Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel has recently pointed out, “the conflict between vigorous economic growth and very limited improvements or reversals in the nutritional status and health of the majority of the {U.S.) population suggests that the modernization of the nineteenth century was a mixed blessing for those who lived through it.”(1) Thanks to public limitations on the free market, it was a much more unmixed blessing for most people in the developed world in the golden third quarter of this century – and even, in a very modest way, in those other parts of the world where bombs from outside and dictatorial lunacy from inside did not bring unnecessary catastrophe.

Since we cannot return to that era, and some (including, it seems, Freedman) would not want us to, it is not implausible to look into the future with misgiving. Those who do so, like myself, hope we are mistaken.

March 1997

(1) Robert W.Fogel, “When Will Humanity Finally Escape From Chronic Malnutrition?” ( The NestlĂ© Lecture on the Developing World, London 1997) p 6the