The difference between a good history course and a bad history course is simple. In the good history courses students learn how to take disparate bits of information, pull them together, and come to a deeper understanding of what was happening in the world. In the bad history courses students simply learn names, dates, and places with no connection. In the truly terrible history courses students learn names, dates, and places with an ideological bent to convince them to buy into an ideology or patently false interpretation of reality.
This, for the record, is why you hear Evangelical Christians spout off about liberal schools indoctrinating children. Evangelical Christians of the sort who worry about evil liberals and their agendas usually do so because they have an agenda themselves and can’t see anything outside of the framework of competing ideologies and force-fed interpretations of reality. The idea of a good education and well-rounded students is an ideology, in that it is an ideology of instruction. A good education producing well-rounded students does not and should not be an ideology of interpretation, however. The simple fact is, though, that a well-rounded and knowledgeable student will most likely not take the blinkered reality of the zealot, which makes it appear to that blinkered zealot that there is a nefarious goal in mind.
This interplay of notions of how reality works is what drew me to the particular bits of John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405 that occasioned these posts. It is, in fact, a tale of convergence.
In the latter third of the book I hit a section called “Global Economics” that focused mostly on the British Empire and its system in the late 1800s, since that was the height of the empire upon which the Sun never set. British thinking about money and globalization, then, dominated much of the world’s thinking about money and globalization. All of that came together to produce this remarkable passage:
London’s size and wealth thus grew in sympathy with the surging growth of international trade. Among its merchants and bankers, it was an article of faith that what was good for London was good for the world. The idea of free trade and the open economy was adopted in Britain in the 1840s and ‘50s not just as a policy but as a total world-view, an ideology promoted with crusading passion. It imagined a world in which peoples would be freed from their bondage to rulers by the flood tide of commerce. Individual freedom and international trade would move forward together. Free trade was regarded as the key to British economic success, and to the economic progress of the rest of the world. (The alternative – protection – was rejected politically in Britain before 1914, and its supporters were divided over what to protect.) Its champions insisted that letting the market decided on what it made sense to produce was the most efficient way to use economic resources.
Stop me if you’ve heard any of this recently, possibly in a contemporary and immediate context. The fascinating thing about the bit that I quoted above is that it is still an economic stand made by proponents of free market capitalism and libertarianism today. It’s also fascinating in the way that it’s an ideology that eats its own tail.
We think now of free market capitalism and the freedom that it entails in the minds of its supporters as the downside of the legacy of the Cold War. As such, we think of it, discuss it, and argue about I in the context of that great ideological conflict of the 20th Century: the fight between capitalism and Communism. However, if you put Darwin’s passage above in the proper historical context something leaps out immediately. Britain adopted free market economics in the 1840s and ‘50s and it became at fully entrenched, unassailable position over the next thirty years.
Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. He wrote Das Kapital two decades later. Marxism, then, arose as a counterpoint to the increasingly entrenched capitalistic free market system. The reasons for this are pretty obvious, especially if you follow me through my two points of convergence. I’d already realized we seem to be repeating history in a disturbingly similar way. What threw me off was the way other people are seeing the same thing but from different perspectives.
The day after I read the bit about economics Fred Clark put up a post about Christianity Today’s objections to employee health care and compared it to the old Gilded Age notion of the company town. Fred’s purposes for discussing the company town were different than John Darwin’s reasons for discussing British adherence to free market capitalism and my reasons to start thinking about Marxism and Communism but they all pointed in exactly the same direction. The system only works if the people at the very top who control the conversation do so while exploiting the people at the bottom and not allowing them to point it out.
The latter half of the paragraph from After Tamerlane should, hopefully, draw the conclusion completely together.
Countries without capital or an industrial base should concentrate their efforts on the production of “staples”: the raw materials or foodstuffs for which a world demand existed. They should use the income that their staples earned to buy the manufactures they needed, and to pay back the interest on the capital they borrowed – since staple production could expand only if there were railways and harbours to bring the goods to market. Any other policy – for example building up industrial production behind a wall of tariffs – was not only inefficient (because industrial goods could be bought more cheaply abroad), it was also unjust. It meant that the consumer was taxed in favour of those who had gained the production of tariffs, a political process that (so free-traders implied) was invariably corrupt. Enlightened colonial rule should thus enforce free trade (as the British did in India), just as wise diplomacy should always encourage it.
Consider the implications of the free market system as envisioned by 19th Century British capitalists. Those “staples” were raw materials. In some cases it was things like food or tea. In most cases, though, it was things like cotton and silk that would then be sent elsewhere and then turned into textiles and sold back to the producers of the raw materials.
For the British this made perfect sense. They had all the factories, after all, and manufactured goods are more expensive than raw materials and generally have a higher profit margin. Part of the reason that manufactured goods are more expensive than raw materials, it’s important to note, is that manufactured goods include raw materials. So the British were buying materials from their undeveloped colonies at price X and selling them back at price X + Y. Moreover, they were also engaging in infrastructure improvements – mostly the building of railroads – that worked to their benefit. Infrastructure improvements allowed the colonizers to move raw materials to port and bring manufactured goods back to the producers of the raw materials and also allowed them to quickly move troops around so a smaller number of British forces could be used to hold a larger area than if large, permanent garrisons were necessary. All of this, then, could be billed to the colonized people under the guise of paying their rightful share for all of the civilization the British had gifted to them.
It should be blatantly obvious that the things the British were paying for in this system were far lower in price than the things they were getting paid for in return. This doesn’t make any economic sense until you realize that the world’s primary source of capital at the time was London. The Brits were more than happy to make loans to cover the difference at a reasonable interest rate.
The goal of British free market capitalists, in short, was to turn the entire world into a company store.
This was an untenable situation. The British proponents of free market capitalism didn’t see it that way, but they were the isolated ones at the top. They could afford to sit around in their splendid isolation and discuss how the economic situation that was best for them was also best for everyone else.
It wasn’t, for the record. That’s why Marxism and then Communism began to gain traction at the same time. It’s important to note, though, that Marxism was initially supposed to be a workers’ revolt in the already industrialized world. It wasn’t until Trotsky and the Comintern that Communism took on the agricultural workers’ revolt that we think of today in places like Vietnam and Central America. As such, it’s useful to consider another link that I ran across that very afternoon.
Ed Kilgore at Political Animal put a link up to a Foreign Policy article with the snarky description, “Charles Emmerson makes case at Foreign Policy that world in 2013 eerily similar to world in 1913. True, the Czar and the Kaiser have been restless of late, and the Entente is irresolute.”
Emmerson offers this great summation of what I was thinking at the time: “In many ways, the world of 1913, the last year before the Great War, seems not so much the world of 100 years ago as the world of today, curiously refracted through time. It is impossible to look at it without an uncanny feeling of recognition, telescoping a century into the blink of an eye. But can peering back into the world of our great-grandparents really help us understand the world we live in today?”
Yes. Yes it can. And we’ve got a ways to go.
One thing that did annoy the fuck out of me whilst re-reading the book was the apparent lack of the services of a good copy editor. Darwin apparently has some sort of written Tourettes that compels him to splatter commas all over the place. That might be a British thing, I suppose, but I’ve read a few British historians in my day and don’t remember seeing that many egregious commas. John Julius Norwich, for one, seemed to know where to put his commas. Each page also seemed to have at least one or two minor but obvious grammatical errors or missing words or something similar. It gave me a sad.
 John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008), 335.