Once upon a time, smart people thought the world was flat. As globalization took off, economists pointed to spreading market forces that allowed consumers to buy similar things for the same prices around the world. Others invoked the expansion of liberalism and democracy after the Cold War. For a while, it seemed as if the West’s political and economic ways really had won out.
But the euphoric days of flat talk now seem like a bygone era, replaced by gloom and anxiety. The economic shock of 2008, the United States’ political paralysis, Europe’s financial quagmires, the dashed dreams of the Arab Spring, and the specter of competition from illiberal capitalist countries such as China have doused enthusiasm about the West’s destiny. Once seen as a model for “the rest,” the West is now in question. Even the erstwhile booster Francis Fukuyama has seen the dark, warning in his recent two-volume history of political order that the future may not lie with the places that brought the world liberalism and democracy in the past. Recent bestsellers, such as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, capture the pessimistic Zeitgeist. So does a map produced in 2012 by the McKinsey Global Institute, which plots the movement of the world’s economic center of gravity out of China in the year 1, barely reaching Greenland by 1950 (the closest it ever got to New York), and now veering back to where it began.
It was only a matter of time before this Sturm und Drang affected the genteel world of historians. Since the future seems up for grabs, so is the past. Chances are, if a historian’s narrative of the European miracle and the rise of capitalism is upbeat, the prognosis for the West will be good, whereas if the tale is not so triumphal, the forecast will be more ominous. A recent spate of books about the history of global capitalism gives The Cambridge History of Capitalism, a two-volume anthology edited by two distinguished economic historians, Larry Neal and Jeffrey Williamson, presents readers with a window into the deep origins of capitalism. Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy explains how capitalism broke free in a remote corner of western Europe. And in Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert, a leading global historian, offers a darker story of capitalism, born of worldwide empire and violence.
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